Denton — The opera department at the University of North Texas in Denton is always edgy, even with the most standard of warhorses, because of the brilliance of the director of the department, Jonathan Eaton. Operas there are often creatively presented in an illuminating manner: rearranged, reset and even sometimes edited, but never doing any harm to the piece.
Before the school and everything was shuttered in the Coronavirus crisis, UNT produced an edgy opera: Marc Blitzstein’s Regina, and the results were surprisingly not edgy. Eaton precisely presented the composer’s original concept in era, costumes and settings. The result was that this revolutionary but rarely produced opera was allowed to present its groundbreaking qualities, speaking for themselves, without any additional commentary. Thus, we were able to experience this remarkable opus, with its shocking fusion of wildly differing musical language and styles, as the astonished audience did on the original opening night, Oct. 31, 1949. Even the venue added to that shock, in that it was not even in a traditional opera house. Instead, it was presented on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in New York. Even though it opened to mixed reviews, its effect on the future of the art form was immediate. Leonard Bernstein reportedly commented that without Regina, he would never have conceived of writing something like West Side Story.
Going in this direction allowed Eaton and his production team to concentrate on the authenticity of every detail of the production. He is always concerned with the details, but here he had the additional task of bringing his fertile imagination to the difficult task of recreating how he thought the opera was originally produced. The libretto was by Blitzstein but based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. It is set in a grand mansion in the Deep South in 1900. Eaton himself did the design of the set, built by Jordan Batson and lit by Lisa Miller, that precisely implied that setting without resorting to super-realism, such as a production by Franco Zeffirelli or a film would require. Furnishings were also historically accurate as were the costumes, designed by Michael Robinson with the Dallas Costume Shoppe.
As with all of UNT’s productions, Regina was double cast and this review is of the March 1 performance. All of them were remarkable, especially for a university production. Knowing some of the other cast from past UNT productions, they were all equally excellent and possessed similar vocal and dramatically abilities. Only a few of other such university programs can present one cast of UNT’s quality, let alone a second one.
While some readers will remember the plot from Bette Davis’ chilling portrayal of Regina Giddens in the 1941 movie The Little Foxes, it is worth a brief overview. The plot follows the hostile and destructive relationships of the Giddens family, barely hidden under a superimposed veneer of situationally manufactured so-called “Southern” manners. Behind the back of Horace, who is her terminally ill husband, Regina and her brothers cook up a scheme to reap enormous but ill-gotten gains, which she alone knows he vehemently opposes. When events turn sour and she finds her back against the wall, she denies Horace the heart medicine that is keeping him alive and coldly watches him die before calling for help. Everyone involved realizes what she has done, although it cannot be proved. Her daughter is horrified and leaves the household, as do the domestic servants and her double-crossed brothers. So, Regina accomplished her goal of acquiring the great wealth she always coveted, but the price is high. She finds herself the epitome of a tragic character: bitter, despised, reviled, deserted by everyone, inescapably immersed in self-opposed misery. Not to mention, absolutely alone.
As Regina, Hilary Grace Taylor played her with a venomous version of politeness without even a hint of real humanity. Bass baritone Chris Curcuruto’s deep and resonant voice slightly mellowed his appropriately steely portrayal of Horace. The two brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, received sympatric treatment in the hands of Austin Murray and Jake Tipoff, especially at the moment they realize that the trap they set for Regina was actually sprung back on them.
Megan Koch was remarkable in the role of Regina’s daughter, Alexandria. Over the time span of the opera, we actually saw her grow up from a child to stepping over the line to assured and independent womanhood.
As Birdie, the always tipsy and physically abused wife of Oscar, Catherine Raible caught both the helplessness of her situation as well as the weakness that keeps her from improving it. As the son of this destructive relationship, Leo, was perfect as the rebel without a cause. As William Marshall, the hapless Northern businessman enlisted by the Hubbard brothers into their scheme, Eric Laine was appropriately uncomfortable in this unfamiliar social situation.
One of the important aspects of this drama’s social commentary was how the two African American servants were portrayed in the libretto, and the music written for them. Brooke Waters was marvelous with her sympatric interpretation of the maid, Addie, caught between her abundant self-worth and the realization of her lowly status in society in which she is trapped. So was the portrayal of Cal, the houseman, turned in by D'Angelo Hampton.
Myles Pinder as John, Adam Sundquist as Manders, and Baylee Kilgore as the spiritual singer all brought equally vocal and dramatic abilities to these smaller roles.
The most innovative part of Regina was its radical combination of musical styles into the usually more staid and traditionally bound world of the opera. The fabrication of the score out of the disparate elements of jazz, spirituals, ragtime, modern dance forms with popular as well as “classical” music stunned audiences at the time, and still does even today. This difficult task was accomplished by conductor and musical director Robert Frankenberry, who was ideally suited to the task because of his musical flexibility. If you ever have the opportunity to hear him improvise at the piano, you will experience the facile way he can change from one of these styles to another. While Eaton gets the credit for the production in general, Frankenberry was the one who carried off the eclecticism of the Blitzstein’s influential music.