Saturday, August 2, 2008

Willie Stark Arrives on DVD . . . Finally!

I just finished watching a rather remarkable DVD (put out by Newport Classics and purchased through of a performance of Carlisle Floyd's magnificent American classic, "Willie Stark" presented by the Louisiana State University Opera Department. The performance is not perfect, but definitely one of those performances where one can say the total adds up to far more than the sum of its parts.

Let's get the negatives out of the way. The HD picture is often overly bright, frequently washing out facial features in group shots, though in close ups the lighting tends to be softer. I hate nit picking, but in a "filmed" version with today's technological advances on hand, particularly at a State university capable of making its own HD films, it is a distraction from the overall enjoyment. Much praise has gone to the LSU Opera Orchestra, and indeed, they produce some wonderful effects with this remarkable score, yet there are too many moments where they sound at sea, with a sour sound that can mar the intended effect. Fortunately, (or not) these usually seem to occur in the score's louder moments.

A more major problem is some of these roles are for voices one would expect to have more maturity, roles that, in fact, cry out for that maturity and experience - but again, I'm nit picking a performance by college students, and truth be told, once I settled in I felt even these performances to be heartfelt and performed with great emotion and that is something that matters enormously in a story like this.

Now the good parts. First and foremost is the performance of Dennis Jesse in the title role. This is an amazing performance, one to cherish. Jesse captures perfectly the difficult duplicity of Willie - your at once repelled, yet charmed by him. I found myself loving this character, every side of him from the corrupt egotist to the common man of the people, inspiring hope in the hopeless and downtrodden. The possessor of a voice of truly great beauty, diction is never sacrificed in his delivery - every syllable clear and passionately uttered. It is a remarkable - tour de force performance. His greatest moment in an evening filled with them is his visit to his home town and the first time we hear that marvelous "Come back, Willie" theme that will appear several more times, most incredibly when the chorus picks up the theme at the opera's end. I had tears in my eyes at the beauty of tone, the impassioned and introspective manner in which he made this come alive. This is a performance that absolutely crackles with life and electricity.

The second standout performance comes from young tenor, Adam Holcomb, as Willie's aide and rival in love, Jack Burden. Burden shows a huge amount of promise and terrific top notes. He captures nearly perfectly all of Jack's passion and heartbreak. His final scene with his father Judge Burden, is almost painful to watch. Also up to the challenge as the Judge is Noel Bouley - outstanding.

As Anne, Katheryn Drake shows a lovely soprano with gleaming high notes, but at times the role threatens to get away from her. I can only imagine that she will grow into this - and more mainstream roles with ease.

The chorus work here is at that same level as Jesse's performance. It is a beautiful sound they produce and their youthful faces capture all of the emotion of Willie's friends and constituents.

The production makes effective use of a unit set - a set of distressed stone steps arranged in a semicircle at the rear of the stage - evoking the steps of an ancient Greek ampitheatre. They are split unevenly with large gaps between. Three square stone-like arches are arranged on these steps, adding to the ancient feel, but each with a modern wooden door. This leaves a rather intimate playing area where most of the opera is played out, with various props and set dressings (e.g., desks and chairs, picket fence, old fashioned radio console, etc.) to suggest the location of each scene. Dugg McDonough's direction is about as good as one could want here, and his cast responds beautifully.

So, despite any reservations I may have had, the overall performance is fairly wonderful, and I must tip my cap to all involved in this enormous project and offer both hearty congratulations and gratitude for bringing Mr. Floyd's wonderful American opera back to the public.p.

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