August 24, 2012

Stalin Shines in Red Tzar

By Jeff Dunn

Stalin Kept Svetlana Close to his HeartI never thought I’d grow to love Stalin. He was not a nice man. He was especially mean to his daughter, Svetlana, who, at 16, the year after she sang “There Are So Many Love Songs in My Country” to Winston Churchill in Moscow, saw her 39-year-old lover exiled on spy charges. But in Lisa Scola-Prosek’s opera on the subject, heard Friday night at the Thick House on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, the musicality of bass/baritone Scott Graff’s Stalin emerged as a hero of the production — in comparison with the other lead singers.

Daughter of the Red Tzar is Scola-Prosek’s sixth opera since she began writing them in 2001. Her experience shows in her libretto, tautly focused in nine dramatic scenes and an equal number of subscenes. Yet opera is an unequal, if transforming, marriage of words and music. No opera survives history with a fine libretto and poor-to-mediocre music.

In the latter department, Tzar mostly does not impress. The notes at times do not fit the thoughts and words. The score occasionally stagnates in noodling arpeggiations. The six-piece orchestration, except for the use of an accordion, is uninventive. The melody is mostly arioso and not particularly memorable. Exceptionally, there is one attractive toasting song either composed or adapted by Scola-Prosek, “Come Raise Your Glass, Tovarich,” which features, in a Russian folk idiom, some interesting harmonic changes.

Lisa Scola-ProsekScola-Prosek’s music is not helped by the soloists other than Graff. Many of Churchill’s lines lay outside the range available to tenor John Duykers on Friday. Crystal Philippi has a lovely mezzo-soprano voice for Svetlana, but it was more than occasionally off pitch, and I couldn’t hear her words. A similar issue was present in the vibrato-rich voice of Valentina Osinski, who sang the ghost of Svetlana’s mother. These were problems in a hall without supertitles. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner’s huge and not always accurate voice seemed too large for the small venue.

Given the sonic issues with the rest of the cast, every appearance of Graff was a joy to hear. His Stalin seemed more human than monstrous, a father overly protective and a bit puritanical regarding his young daughter. While elements of paranoia were present, perhaps they should have been emphasized more, considering the man’s reputation.

John Duykers and Scott Graff negotiateIn general, however, director Melissa Weaver’s staging served the drama well. Duykers was an embodiment of Churchill, especially in an underwear-only bath scene. There, the shower head was held by scary and buffoonish (á la Adams’/Sellers’ Kissinger in Nixon in China) KGB head Roham Sheikhani, in a clever method of indicating the true fact that the room was extremely bugged. Thomas Prosek’s sets were simple and highly serviceable; for example, Stalin’s large desk became an airplane when Churchill ascended it.

The libretto and the acting of the entire cast were enough to provoke a warm response from the opening-night audience. If Lisa Scola-Prosek would follow Arrigo Boito’s example and find a genius composer to set her fine texts, a character like Stalin could become even more lovable.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.