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Some simple facts about The Cursed Daunsers' presentation at the Loeb are worth acclaim in themselves. The opera presents the original work of two undergraduates, the libretto of Thomas Babe and the music of Alfred Guzzetti. The production succeeds without employing more than a few minor personnel from outside Radcliffe and the College. And the drama's appearance at the Loeb is the first such Harvard production there and marks a significant return of opera to the University stage.
Yet the opera itself has strengths and weaknesses. The hour-long work is quite powerful; its production is excellent; but what holds both back from more complete success is the general dramatic character--a preoccupation with archaic mystique and a steady, general tension at the expense of the opera's issues and dramatic progression.
The story comes from an early fourteenth century tale: a lower cleric (the word priest used in the opera is misleading) condemns a group of five frivolous dancers to dance in pain for a year; he then finds his daughter among them but refuses to forgive her. After her death at the end of the year, he banishes her body to unblessed ground.
Now, clerical puritanism is not an issue today, and it is indeed very clear that Babe did not regard the question as his chief concern. He and Guzzetti make a simpler use of the medieval setting, for they adopt it to capitalize upon the mystic aura of the medieval church, upon the color of the liturgy's communalism and ritual. Borrowed to produce its very immediate awe, the opera's medievalism is a facile expedient for proclaiming the profundity of the drama; by the last scene the sections in more obvious liturgical setting have become annoyingly irrelevant. The two writers are not, of course, alone in this abuse. The same pretentious archaism afflicts, for instance, the Verses from the Book of Ruth of Claudio Spies which the Choral Society sang last spring and Le Mystere de la Nativite of Frank Martin which appeared here this Christmas.
Yet such pretentiousness happily disappears in several sections employing all the dancers, the chorus and the two principal characters. Guzzetti's writing maintains a delightful buoyancy among these voices, and the singers coordinated their lines well under conductor David Klausner. But the shame is that Guzzetti keeps the tension so steady that these sections never take on the promise they deserve.
What the opera does center on is the priest's personal dilemma, and much of the performance's success came from Gregory Sandow's imposing portrayal of this character. Yet because the issue which created this personal strife is so unimportant to the libretto, the priest cannot be a complete dramatic character. It is not the specific question of his allegiance which seems to oppress him--he is simply burdened by a gloom which envelopes all the characters. The tone of continual tension denies his greatest dramatic acts any major significance: his curse, for instance, simply cries out for a Wotan-like declamation, yet neither the libretto nor the music provides anything of the kind.
The other characters performed their more impersonal roles well. Diana Bigelow, as Ave, the daughter, portrayed an astounding dignity, if she did have some unsteadiness in her voice; the four dancers fulfilled nicely the extraordinary demand for both dancing and singing ability. The direction by Christie Dickason indeed saved the production from the usual infamy of operatic performances' dramatic woodenness. One problem, however, did appear at moments in the singing: the pronunciation was generally distinct, but the very effort to give the words clarity sometimes made them graceless or forced.
The orchestra did its part quite competently, but it too was limited by the unvaried character of the opera's dramatic tone. The orchestral music's motives are oppressively repetitive and emerge invariably as either climactic or brooding themes, and as a result do not guide the dramatic progression. The texture and harmony of the orchestral music is so uniform throughout that the vocal lines tend to absob one's complete attention.
The abstractness of the opera's characters and the aura of tension which the music drapes upon them create for the drama a mystique like the one it borrows from medievalism. The substance of that mystique is its steady assertion of the opera's profundity through such abstractness and brooding. But it is a fragile mystique which must borrow that of another age to make itself compelling and undertakes no complete replacement of the outmoded issues of that other time. If such drama seeks to establish itself as a spiritual guide, let it do that by attacking the concrete human issues of its time and let us, the viewers, decide whether or not such depth exists in that work.
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