The Bronx Opera Company kicked off its 49th season on January 16, at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College, with Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina,” his operatic setting of Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes.” Central to this highly-political, etched-in-acid Southern gothic, set in Alabama and taking its original title from the line in the Biblical “Song of Solomon,” “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines,” is the unsavory Hubbard family, which preys on the poor, weak, and ailing in its ruthless quest for money and power. “You couldn’t find twelve men in this State/You haven’t stolen from—/And who hate you for it,” Regina threatens her brothers, Ben and Oscar, as she contemplates legal action against them. “Some people eat all the earth./Some stand around and watch while they eat,” is how Horace Giddens describes his wife and his in-laws, the clear “bad guys,” vis-à-vis the distinctly “good guys.” As the townspeople archly characterize the all-controlling Hubbards, “They’ll make you rich, and make you poor,/And harry you and carry you and marry you and bury you/And steal your wedding ring!” Finally, “conniving and grasping” are words for the Hubbards in Frank N. Magill’s “Cyclopedia of Literary Characters.” On their own turf, Regina, imperious and utterly lacking in empathy, treats ailing husband Horace with sheer contempt and condescends to daughter Alexandra/Zan and servants Addie and Cal, while Oscar mercilessly bullies Birdie, his sensitive wife.
“Regina” is one of the works, along with “Susannah,” “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” “Vanessa,” “The Crucible,” and such works of Menotti as “The Medium” and “The Consul,” which constituted the canon of mid-20th century American operas that became all-but-standard repertory. “Regina” had a Broadway run in 1949 before it reached the opera house, figured in New York City Opera seasons in the 1950s and ’90s, and was recorded by the company’s 1958 cast, headed by Brenda Lewis, Elisabeth Carron, and Joshua Hecht.
The Bronx Opera’s previous presentation of “Regina” was during its 2000 season. The first of its four current hearings is considered here. Helping to make this delicious tale of terrible pettiness and greed come alive anew, Eric Kramer conducted on opening night, with Artistic Director Michael Spierman slated to lead the remaining performances; Benjamin Spierman cannily directed; and designers, effectively and economically evoking the period, just over a century ago, were Katja Andreiev (costumes), Scott Aronow (set), and G. Benjamin Swope (lighting). The performing edition departed from the familiar City Opera one by making a fuller, clearer transition from the “Want to join the Angel Band” spiritual to its ragtime version in the prologue; including Cal’s “Stuck Up!” commentary about the Hubbards and their guests in the party scene; and excluding Regina’s snide “Hail the haggard swain” aria, sung to “old beau” John Bagtry, welcome choices all.
All roles were double-cast. On the night discussed here, Nicole Lee Aiossa commanded the stage as a hard-as-nails Regina, unctuously courting Mr. Marshall (Mitchell Roe), whose plan to build a cotton mill will make the Hubbards “Big Rich;” reveling in Broadway-style solos, the forceful “You know, if you want … something that’s over the wall,” to Ben (Zack Rabin) and Oscar (Shane Brown), both so easy to hate, and almost genially self-deprecating “Two old dry bones,” to Horace; ending Act Two with a blazing high C, as she tells Horace “I’ll be waiting” for him to die; and icily issuing demands to her brothers, concerning their business dealings, even as Horace lay dead on his bed.
Hannah Spierman, as her oh-so-very-wronged sister-in-law Birdie, made a meal of the coloratura of “Music, music, music” in Act One; added ringing high notes in the ensembles; and shone in her cathartic confessional third act tour-de-force, about her drinking; longing for Lionnet, the ancestral home stolen from her by her husband’s family; and touching hope for “one day/When they won’t be mean,/Or say something to make you feel so bad!”
Singing in an imposing bass, C. David Morrow was the sympathetic Horace Giddens. Erin Schwab was the sweet Zan, who made us cheer when she stood up to her mother and asserted herself in the end. Michael Celentano made a persuasively good-for-nothing Leo, Oscar and Birdie’s son, swaggering and dopy.
Rich-voiced Helena Brown limned Addie as keen observer to the foibles of those ‘Upstairs’ and warm supporter of other ‘good guys’ Birdie, Horace, and Zan, whom she joined in the “Make a quiet day … Listen to the rain” quartet, the one truly happy moment in the opera. Christopher Eaglin gave us a clearer picture than usually emerges of Cal, his part fleshed out with the cuts opened in the prologue and in the party scene, where he also joined Addie in soothing poor Birdie with “Night could be time to sleep … Please Miss Birdie,” after Oscar has chided her in public—again.
New York State Assemblymember from the Bronx Jeffrey Dinowitz put in a cameo appearance in the speaking role of John Bagtry, Regina’s ex, and was spared the indignity of being hailed as her “haggard swain, complete with … wispy weakness of … face.”
Kudos to the Bronx Opera chorus for its pointed contributions to the beginning and end of the party scene, the ironic “Regina does a lovely party” and the lively “Gallop,” and to Kramer and the orchestra for fully realizing the diverse musical elements, classical, Broadway, jazz, ragtime, and liturgical, that make up the score.
After the weekend in the Bronx, the company’s “Regina” moves to the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan, for performances on January 23 and 24 matinee. Next on the Bronx Opera agenda is Gioachino Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (Cinderella), in English, at Lehman on April 30 and May 1 matinee, 7, and 8 matinee. Visit www.bronxopera.org
for further information. Lehman’s Lovinger Theatre is located at 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West.