Monday, October 28, 2013

Of baritones and other hairy beasts

Michael Underfhill in "Vampirella."
I'll admit the only theatre piece I've seen this fall (aside from The Jungle Book) that has gotten me truly excited was Hairy Tales, a dramatization of two Angela Carter radio plays from Imaginary Beasts.  

So I did want to throw a few more bouquets in its general direction (even though the show closed over the weekend). Once again, costume designer Cotton Talbot-Minkin came through with the perfect costumes to match Matthew Woods' eccentric vision (her Max-Schreck-on-stilts gambit was especially inspired), and Chris Bocchiarro's lighting in "Vampirella" often subtly insinuated that we were watching a kind of live-action silent movie rather than a conventional "play."  Likewise Sam Beebe's music and sound proved an evocative mix of the eerie and melancholic, and Kiki Samko's choreography (for the first play of the evening, "The Company of Wolves") proved curiously effective in its simplicity.  I've already praised the cast (Kamelia Aly, Erin Butcher, Poornima Kirby, Amy Meyer, Lorna Nogueira, Joey Pelletier, William Schuller and Michael Underhill) but I felt I had to give special mentions to the designers, who made the production a miniature visual triumph.

I was less taken, alas, with "Baritones Unbound," a kind of "No Mo' Tenors!" revue at ArtsEmerson last week that claimed to showcase "The Uncommon Voice of the Common Man."  I've no argument with that idea, btw - an appreciation of the baritone repertoire is long overdue - but as devised by vocalist Marc Kudisch, "Baritones Unbound" seemed to stumble repeatedly for me, particularly in its first half, which was devoted to the role of the baritone in opera.

The three baritones of "Unbound."

But the simple fact is that the baritone often isn't the "common man" in opera; more often than not, he's the villain, or at least the antagonist of the tenor.  (As someone once quipped, opera is what happens when the soprano can't marry the tenor because of the baritone.)  Still, Kudisch did patch together a solid act of greatest-hits for the baritone (sung by Papageno and Figaro, among others), and some of these came off well.  But not all. The basic problem was that none of the show's three stars were true bass-baritones, so they often fumbled (or fished for) their low notes - and to be honest, even their mid-range intonation wasn't always secure (only Jeff Mattsey, in fact, was flawlessly on-pitch - alas, creator Kudisch was the least reliable in this regard).

Things improved after intermission, when the focus shifted to Broadway and pop - where ranges are more confined, phrasing more free, and the idea of the baritone as a factotum for "the common man" makes more sense.  Even here, however, nobody could plumb the depths of "Old Man River" (until a recorded Paul Robeson showed us how it's done) and a few flat notes made "Some Enchanted Evening" less than enchanting. Still, the show moved uphill; pianist Timothy Splain proved a witty accompanist, Mattsey delivered a wickedly accurate Bing Crosby impersonation, and Davis rendered a lovely "Night and Day." The self-satisfied Kudisch grew on me less (if at all), but did finally score with a powerful "I, Don Quixote," from Man of La Mancha (accompanying himself on guitar). And the entire trio had lung power to spare, so pleasingly, no amplification was required; indeed, the subtitle of the evening might have been "Baritones Unplugged." Maybe that was enough for some people - honesty requires me to report that even as I cringed at the missed notes, the crowd ate them up and begged for more - but then they also knew all the words to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" (that was the encore).  So what can I say? If Neil Diamond is your idea of a great baritone, this show was for you.

What was oddest about the whole project, however, was its closing commentary.  After charting the rise of a certain type of musical "common man" - or rather white, heterosexual common man from European stock - the baritones noted with shock that their repertoire had suddenly dried up on Broadway in the mid-80's.  (I suppose Javert's numbers from Les Misérables comprise the exception that proves that rule.)

But is this so very hard to explain?  Sure, musical standards have fallen in general - that's part of the story.  But white straight guys are simply out of date, dudes - as is your "baritone man-cave," and the genially nostalgic man-camp that goes on in it.  "The common man" is somebody else now.  So is it such a puzzlement that the best songs are going to somebody else, too?

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