A Swampy Séance at City Opera

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There’s a line towards the end of the first act of Séance on a Wet Afternoon sung by a small ensemble visiting a medium that had special resonance during yesterday’s stormy weather: “I’m so glad I came here today—even in the rain.” During the entire three hours of Stephen Schwartz’s maiden voyage with New York City Opera, I wondered if I was glad to have gone to the David H. Koch Theater—even in the rain.

And therein lies the problem of Schwartz’s first opera: I truly wanted to like it, and there were parts that I did. Those parts, however, seemed cribbed from the plots of Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Menotti’s own clairvoyant opera, The Medium. Myra, an augur who may or may not be (in her words) “bonafide,” and her husband Bill kidnap the daughter of a wealthy businessman so that Myra can then help lead the police to her whereabouts in a newsworthy display of her prescient prowess. What we quickly learn is that Myra and Bill had their own child, a son, who died. That’s where things get complicated, both for Myra’s sanity and Bill’s dwindling devotion. Unfortunately Schwartz, who also wrote the libretto, doesn’t seem up to the challenge.

The plot is plagued by a series of false endings to the point where the second act seems unnecessary. Based on a novel and film of the same name, the original Séance was set in London. Here Schwartz transports the action to San Francisco, perhaps in a nod to the psychological drama of Hitchcock’s Bay Area films. But whereas Hitch was the master of suspense, Schwartz gives us a drama that is lifeless and dull.

Lauren Flanigan and Michael Kepler Meo in Seance on a Wet AfternoonThe score is derivative of Sondheim circa Sweeney Todd and a Trouble in Tahiti–era Bernstein. In fact, it’s ironic that Tahiti, as part of A Quiet Place, was the other bookend of this season for City Opera—if you hadn’t known the scores and heard both in a blind listen, you may have pegged Schwartz’s opera to Bernstein and vice-versa. There are trademark Schwartz touches that remind us of his successes in Wicked and Pocahontas, though occasionally the rhymes seem forced and the chorus numbers are clumsy in both music and direction (courtesy of Stephen Schwartz’s son, Scott Schwartz).

While the cast is not uniformly commendable, there are several members who keep the pace moving, chief among them NYCO veteran Lauren Flanigan as Myra. Apart from having a titanium set of pipes, Flanigan brought a haunting and creepy pathos to her scenes with the police, the girl’s parents and girl herself, though this same tension drops off in her scenes with Bill. The best music of the night, however, both in terms of writing and performance, belonged to Melody Moore, making her City Opera debut as Rita Clayton, the mother of the missing girl. Playing the housewife of an upper-class nuclear family, she transformed from a repressed Betty Draper to an equal with her husband in one glorious sonic swoop. Bass-baritone Philip Boykin had a commanding presence as Inspector Watts and, as the children, Bailey Grey and Michael Kepler Meo each gave their adult colleagues a run for their money.

Dramatically and musically there is an overload of artifice that makes the performance feel not unlike that of attending an actual séance. While many devoted members of the audience seemed to laud the production last night, I found myself among the skeptics.

Weigh in: Have you seen Séance on a Wet Afternoon? If so, what did you think? Leave a comment below.