Southern Discomfort


Marc Blitzstein (1905–1964) is one of the more improbable stories among Broadway’s composer-lyricists. A classically trained musician, puckish in sensibility but somber in outlook, from an affluent family, he was moved to take up Communism at least partly by the personal drama of his family’s losing its fortune in the Crash of ’29. Initially a composer of rebarbative, polytonal pieces, he found himself struggling to express himself in accessible, populist terms and hummable tunes—and struggling, also, to combat the feelings of guilt that beset him when he discovered his genuine affinity for tunefulness and rhymed wit.

Understandably, part of the fascination of Blitzstein’s scores is that there is always an element of struggle about them, something that is slightly “off” about either the words or the music, as if his ability to hit the target dead-on were affected by an uncertainty about whether it was worth hitting at all. He is certainly the only person ever to have attempted to write a Broadway musical (Reuben Reuben) in which the hero is afflicted with aphasia. It’s probably not irrelevant that, in addition to the burden of his leftist beliefs in a time of right-wing anti-Communist hysteria, Blitzstein was gay, an aspect of his personality that troubled him sufficiently to make a tragic heterosexual marriage. (His wife committed suicide.)

Regina, strictly speaking Blitzstein’s only full-length opera, is one of his three creative peaks, along with the seminal The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and the flawed but haunting Juno (1959). Like his other works, it is a study in contrarieties: an opera full of unoperatic and seemingly unsingable subject matter, set to a sort of three-layered musical class war—between classical and popular idioms, between tonality and modernist dissonance, between “white” and African American styles. Based on Lillian Hellman’s sharp-nosed melodrama The Little Foxes, it has a musical spikiness to match Hellman’s personality; unexpected discords and startling shifts in approach crop up in it like little patches of musical barbed wire; it is a battlefield of an opera. You never know when a flood of Dixieland, or a scurry of spoken dialogue underscored by percussive rhythms, will be halted by an explosion of fervent arioso straight out of Verdi, a satiric choral commentary la Prokofiev, or a burst of pure salon music sweetness. Blitzstein may not be able to make all these disparate elements fit comfortably in one work, but he handles each of them, individually, with extraordinary subtlety and theatrical acumen.

The quintessence of the indeterminate form that, for want of a better word, we call “Broadway opera,” Regina is as hard to produce as it is to place artistically. You need an opera house orchestra at ease with jazz rhythms and sensitive enough to play sympathetically under dialogue sequences. The cast has to answer operatic demands musically, project difficult words with immaculate diction, and act convincingly enough to get through at least the equivalent of an adequate summer stock performance of The Little Foxes. And the director has to be able to shape these forces—always assuming the conductor’s cooperation—into a performance that will not only hold the crazy-quilt work together, but will give some sense of its social and moral, as well as its musical and theatrical, resonance. For The Little Foxes is not simply a wicked-woman melodrama; it is about the rise of industrial capitalism in the agrarian South, about indeterminacies of race and class after the Civil War, about a robber baron era in American politics with painful similarities to our own. The play’s alliance of “Hubbard Sons and Marshall” (Regina’s crooked brothers and the Northern cotton buyer they team with) is the ancestry of today’s Republican party. Decidedly, Regina is not a task for the fainthearted.

Luckily, the performance at Bard College’s SummerScape festival was a brave one, starting with the choice of work. Dedicated to “Aaron Copland and His World,” the festival could easily have stuck to more familiar classical names and eschewed Blitzstein. But the connection was real (like Blitzstein, Copland was gay, Jewish, and leftist), and the production lived boldly, if not always steadily, within it.

Leon Botstein conducted a powerful, though sometimes aggressively rowdy or hurried, performance. The unsteadiness began with Peter Schneider’s staging, hampered by Judy Pfaff’s dreadful abstract set, which ingeniously managed to obstruct movement without conveying any atmosphere; Garry Lennon’s rich period costumes looked out of place on it. Some of Schneider’s work was astute, some perfunctory. People came and went, often with seeming randomness; Kevin Adams’s lighting altered in spasmodic jerks, suggesting a lack of rehearsal time. Lauren Flanigan’s Regina was fortunately powerful enough to be the show’s spine as well as its central display piece. Commanding of tone and crisp of diction, she went from seductive to brutal to desperate with startling ease and intensity. In a cast that generally sang well and acted credibly, she got particularly strong help from Kelly Kaduce, lustrous voiced and touching as Regina’s weak sister-in-law Birdie, and from Marietta Simpson, who made the servant Addie a richly sung and richly complex character.