Editor’s Note: This is part three of a series on three operas that take the same stage and bring together overlapping performers as part of a suite at The Clarice entitled “Crime and Punishment.”
Some audience members walked out of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief feeling odd about the opera and searching themselves for a reason.
The relatively weak plot centers around a lonely spinster, Miss Todd, and her love-starved maid Laetitia as they take in a drifter named Bob who explicitly states his lack of romantic attraction to women. They later learn through a local gossip, Miss Pinkerton, a convict has escaped the county jail and they assume that convict is Bob.
In an effort to keep Bob with them and win his affections, while keeping his location a secret, the two steal money and liquor from various townspeople. When Miss Todd reveals her love to Bob, he rejects her and reveals he was not the convict. Faced with the crimes she committed, Miss Todd leaves to pin the crimes on Bob.
Still enamored with Bob, Laetitia suggests they elope and Bob initially rejects her. Faced with the prospect of prison, he agrees. The two ransack Miss Todd’s home and leave in her car. When Miss Todd returns to her pillaged abode and falls dejectedly to a chair, all Miss Pinkerton does is laugh.
It seems pretty standard, so what goes wrong?
Is it the music?
No, the melodies are evocative – even reminiscent of American composer Aaron Copland. The orchestra, conducted by James Ross, is good too, led by a balanced brass section, impeccable percussionists and forceful flutists. In fact, orchestrally it is the most satisfying opera of the three in the suite.
Is it the set designed by April Joy Tritchler?
The versatile spinning stage truly comes into its own in Old Maid, using every nook and cranny at some point during the show. The same goes for Kasi Campbell’s transformative direction.
Miss Todd and Laetitia, as booze raiders at night – flashlights out, fedoras on, crouching under the set – were fantastic and whimsical.
At the end, as Laetitia and Bob escape, a banquette and unattached wheel become Miss Todd’s car and the entire set rotates to show us their drive away – a truly innovative sequence.
Is it the dance and movement?
Not a chance.
The movement captures feelings well, from the pleasantries repeatedly shared by Miss Todd and Miss Pinkerton to the absolutely wonderful sequence during which bass Daren Jackson’s policeman chases Laetitia and the two dance in place as the set rotates behind them, strobe lights breaking their motion.
Nope. The lighting during the relatively lengthy overture is phenomenal, showing an entire day of varied illumination in the little town 1930s town.
And the cast is most definitely not the problem either.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Polonio is fine as Miss Todd, returning from a great performance as the mother in L’enfant et les Sortileges, another opera in the suite. If Polonio purposefully dropped out of falsetto in the end, it is a mark of her skill. If not, it is a slight mark against her.
Baritone Gregory Voinier, who portrays Bob, plays the comedic role well, as he does in L’occasione fa il ladro, another opera in the suite. He uses the same good expression as he does in the Gioacchino Rossini work, but does his better singing here.
Polonio and soprano Suzanne Karpov, who plays Pinkerton do not create the comedy quite as well as Voinier, but that is partially a function of their roles. Karpov’s expression reflects it consistently, but her inflection does not always do so. The pair’s rapport is good, and its stiltedness may have to do with the airs their characters are perpetually trying to put on.
Soprano Teresa Hitchcock, who plays Laetitia, dances around high notes in her solo, begging Bob to take her as his own, showing off her pristine powerful voice.
Unfortunately, the notes she’s dancing around are lackluster at best.
The consistent vocal movements Menotti wrote, in contrast to the good music, truly point to the opera’s key problem. The incidental operatic singing traverses unpleasant melodies and often feels unnecessary. The voices are beautiful, but the content of Menotti’s vocal music is not.
The only time the vocal performance seems as necessary as the symphonic music is during two select songs: “What Curse For A Woman Is A Timid Man?” sung by Hitchcock and “When The Air Sings Of Summer” sung by Voinier.
Everything about it was well done, but the opera itself simply missed the mark.
A friend, who I’d gone to see the opera with, hit the nail on the head: aside from those two key songs, it could’ve been a straight play. I hate to say this is automatically a problem with English language opera, but in one’s native tongue – a tongue staggeringly less vocally beautiful than its Romance counterparts – everything seems a little mundane.
The English language causes us to focus on the words instead of the melody, which requires the libretto to be spot on.
With foreign language opera, the mystique of not understanding what is said adds an intrinsic profundity even if the lyrics are just as stilted. English allows no such bonus, and Menotti’s libretto cannot reach the mark.
On the other hand, the American nature gives The Old Maid license to be more cute and funny than the other, more formal operas.
This is evident when the thieving Miss Todd hears a sound offstage and asks “What was that noise?”
Laetitia responds: “Don’t worry – It was only the orchestration.”
It is evident when a very drunk Bob sings a beer hall ditty as the horrified Miss Todd nearly dies when Miss Pinkerton’s gossip flashes in Karpov’s expressive eyes
But the question still persists. Is it a straight play? Is it an opera? How? Most importantly, why?
If the work itself cannot answer these questions and back up its answers, the audience simply cannot be expected to pick up the tab.
Good show to everyone in and behind The Old Maid and the Thief, but a stern look at Menotti himself.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.