Regina, Briefly Out of the Closet

I’ve seen Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina staged in its entirety. Not many people living today can say that; the number will swell another thousand or two by week’s end, as the work continues to run at Bard’s Summerscape Festival. Far be it from me to review a work presented by an institution which keeps me on its payroll, but it is worth reporting something about so rarely performed an opera. We have so many operas that possess some underground reputation, but that are performed less often than once per generation, due to presumed flaws whose severity we rarely come into a position to gauge. American music is rich in these known-of but unheard works: Antheil’s Transatlantic and Helen Retires, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Carrie Nation, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Bernard Hermann’s Wuthering Heights, and on and on. Probably they are all unstageworthy to varying extents; but how few people are in a position to confirm this! – and meanwhile it sometimes seems like the bulk of our American operatic heritage is packed away in mothballs.

So, let it be reported that, yes, Blitzstein’s Regina is a deeply flawed work. It is vastly overambitious – the plot, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, is a complex one that revolves around money (a less stageable theme than love or murder), and the dialogue is necessarily wordy. It is to Blitzstein’s credit that he did as well as he did. Much of the libretto is spoken over the music, and with one exception (the final climax, unfortunately) the transitions between speaking and singing seem natural and motivated. The strangest flaw, though, is that the music for the second and third acts is noticeably more memorable than for the first, as though, after finishing Act I, the composer, gripped by a twinge of conscience, suddenly said, “Uh-oh, I’d better put in some tunes.” The tunes would have served him better in the first act than where they are; the loveliest music – self-consciously lovely, written to be lovely and sweet and Coplandy – comes at the beginning of Act 3, where it dissipates the dramatic tension built up at the end of Act 2.

Other failings may be charged to the historical period rather than the composer. The middle of Act 2 is a sort of minstrel-show “jazz” number somewhat akin to those obligatory but embarrassing scenes in every Marx Brothers movie in which Harpo plays to an appreciative crowd comprising some condescendingly depicted minority group. I’m sure Blitzstein, good Communist that he was, thought he was being extremely liberal here; today, the effect is almost the reverse. Director Peter Schneider dealt with this issue well by including the African-American musicians as onlookers in the background throughout the work, rendering the racial issue both better integrated and less politically charged.

Beyond that, there is the matter of Blitzstein’s lack of a really personal style. Regina was in that kind of late-Antheil, mild-Shostakovichy idiom that mid-century Americans were trapped into who were too populist in their sympathies to follow the atonal line, and too progressive in their aesthetics to fall back on romanticism. It was a hard spot to be in. (The difficulty of fusing leftist politics with progressive ideas about art continues to torture many of us to this day, but there are a few more alternatives since minimalism came along.) Blitzstein’s jazz passages were credible, and, if anything, so true to the vernacular that one noticed their limitations as notated music all the more. His kind of cleverness in style-mimicking and lack of a personal aesthetic agenda were assets in writing a populist musical like The Cradle Will Rock – still one of the great achievements of the American theater, a piece that ought to be revived somewhere in this country at least once a year. In the high art world of stage opera, though, Blitzstein’s impressive cleverness was writ large indeed – if only cleverness were enough to sustain three acts of intensely sung emotion.

But I’m glad to be in a position to say that, and I appreciate that my boss, conductor Leon Botstein, had the bull-headed tenacity to put the whole thing up there for us, warts and all. The stage design by my art department colleague Judy Pfaff, with glass doors of different shapes and an ethereal spiral staircase, was lovely, and imparted delicacy to a work that badly needed some delicate touches. Lighting by Kevin Adams was dramatic and quickly changing, which actually helped give the piece some structure where the music lacked it. Lauren Flanagan sang the title role well, and the piece was well cast. That’s fortunate, because Blitzstein was a little too scrupulous about making sure that every character got a big aria to him- or herself. In short, I can’t imagine how any better argument on Regina‘s behalf could be made than was made here, and the bulk of the deficiencies must be laid at Blitzstein’s door. It was reasonably entertaining, extremely informative evening, and now I won’t spend the rest of my life wondering how unjust the neglect of Regina is. Now if someone would perform that service for me vis-a-vis Transatlantic.