Opera's heavenly premiere

Music: `Where Angels Fear to Tread,' an adaptation of the Forster novel, is delightful from start to finish.

February 27, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Fine works of literature rarely make fine operas. The world premiere of "Where Angels Fear to Tread" Thursday night in Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory has convinced me that the tiny number of such successes is now slightly larger.

I don't know if this opera based on E. M. Forster's novel of the same name is a masterpiece. What I do know is that it consistently delighted and moved me and that it's the best new opera I've heard in years.

One of the reasons is a superb libretto by Roger Brunyate, who has removed the beating heart of Forster's novel with surgical precision and transplanted it successfully into an entirely different life form. The characters of this opera are as alive on the stage as they are on Forster's pages.

But the biggest reason for the success of the piece is Mark Lanz Weiser's music. I suspect that this 30-year-old composer has a talent with a potential for growth on the order of Xerox stock 40 years ago or of Microsoft in the late 1970s. He clearly loves the human voice. His ingeniously textured instrumentation and his cunningly plotted vocal lines tell as much (and perhaps more) about the characters as Forster himself.

This could not have been an easy task. Forster's novel revolves around a clash of cultures and personalities. Wealthy British widow Lilia marries a handsome Italian 10 years her junior, Gino, and dies after bearing him a son. Her rather stuffy, if well-meaning, brother-in-law, Philip, and sister-in-law, Harriet, intervene, taking the child away from the father, with tragic consequences.

It is a novel that begins as a comedy of manners and grows unobtrusively into a tragedy of self-recognition.

The opera accomplishes the same transformation. Even when Weiser's music sparkles with wit and fun, there is a touch of melancholy and a coiled intensity that suggests the darker side of the characters and of their situation. As "Angels" reaches its passionate climax, Weiser's music leaps to lyrical heights with implacable force.

Nothing in the score suggests that it could not have been written 30 or even 60 years ago. But it is accessible without sounding derivative. Like any good composer for the theater, Weiser is interested in the effect of time upon human life. And he knows how to express that concern to his audience.

The performance, which had a terrific set by Tony Cisek, was directed with intelligence by Brunyate and was splendidly costumed and lit by John Lehmeyer and Douglas Nelson.

Anne Jennifer Nash was a touching, dignified and wholly believable Caroline, with just enough sangfroid in her manner to hint at the furnace within. Taylor Armstrong was a fine Philip, grave, clear and convincing. Arturo Chacon was a passionate and likable Gino. Susan Minsavage as Philip's formidable sister, Harriet, was a dragon of Wagnerian dimensions. Toni Stefano was fine as the doomed Lilia.

Weiser's colorful score was conducted with passion, precision and conviction by Robert Sirota.

`Where Angels Fear to Tread'

Where: Friedberg Hall, Peabody Conservatory, One Mount Vernon Place

When: Tonight at 7: 30, tomorrow at 3 p.m.

Tickets: $22; $11 seniors; $8 students

Call: 410-659-8124 Pub Date: 2/27/99

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