From the moment Flora was announced as an opener for the newly tarted-up Dock Street Theatre, it has been anticipated by Spoletians. After all, this was a ballad opera that was of historical significance to the Holy City. It was the first of its kind to be performed in the colonies of America, and it was done right here in Charleston.
While Flora was a big hit in England and the colonies back in the early 1700s, with its pleasing themes about common folk versus the gentry and love conquering all, the ballad opera hasn’t been heard for some 250 years. So here are the questions that need to be asked: Was it is worth all the effort to revive it? Is it too simplistic for modern audiences? Is it worth the hype?
The answers are yes, yes, and not quite. Composer-conductor Neely Bruce has taken the source text and used his vast knowledge of colonial era music to make a consistently scored ballad opera. The plot is fairy tale simple, with the heroine locked in a walled garden by a wicked uncle. While the hype promised this would be a worthy way to start the Dock Street’s life afresh, it’s too shallow to have a huge impact. It’s great as a historic artifact, but it’s not a real opera as Bruce is first to point out. It’s full of variations on tunes that were popular at the time.
We first see Flora fretting and peeking over a big tall wall covered with vines, overlooking a well and abundant flower beds. She’s a singing Juliet waiting for Romeo to rescue her. Her guardian, Sir Thomas Testy, does not approve. He wants her inherited fortune and her body, in that order. Flora would rather run away with the dashing Tom Friendly, so her maid Betty sneaks out a note detailing her intentions.
Since Friendly is a member of the upper crust, he hires someone else to do his balcony climbing for him. The mischievous Hob is enlisted to take a letter to Flora, but he’s intercepted by Testy and his two henchmen. They beat Hob up, throw him down a well, and forbid anyone to rescue him.
At the start of the opera, Flora complains about her fate. Soprano Andriana Chuchman sings beautifully and does a lot with her initial sad, slow song, but she doesn’t come across as very likable — a problem considering she’s the heroine. She’s better when singing alongside mezzo-soprano Leah Woo, who obviously enjoys playing the bawdy Betty. The song’s emphasis is on plot rather than heavy character development. It sets the tone for the rest of the production.
Flora becomes more sympathetic when she speaks up against Sir Thomas, performed by baritone Timothy Nolen with vindictive energy. Flora strikes a tentative bargain with her uncle: he’ll get paid if he lets her marry Friendly. Testy’s formidable enough to get us rooting for the heroine at this point.
Nolen has plenty of numbers where he sings of his greedy thoughts and villainous plans. White-haired and black clothed, he totally opposes the chance for happiness that marriage between Flora and Friendly will bring. Friendly is gallant and thoughtful, and baritone Tyler Duncan plays him with passion, modesty, and an effete charm that makes him a believable object of lust for Flora.
Tenor Robert McPherson also has an excellent singing voice, but we only hear snatches of his true potential. As the foolish Hob, he sings about partying, having to do things he doesn’t want to, and being thrown down the well. Not the most edifying topics for an opera solo. Fortunately there’s a lot more to Hob than his silly songs. He dances, fights, and whistles, turning the peasantry into inveterate Hob fans. Early on, though, the bumpkin is annoying. He talks too much. As a character eventually points out, he “confuses the ear with his noise.”
Hob has a rough-as-rocks mother and father, played by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti and bass-baritone Stephen Bryant. Gigliotti is saddled with a role that verges on grating high-pitched hysteria a couple of times. Bryant fares better, giving his secondary role an authenticity and power it barely deserves. His handles the English west country dialect well, delivering his spoken lines with a piratical brogue. McPherson’s accent is the most wayward; since he’s the comic relief, he gets away with it.
Tenor Zachary Stains is also notable as Will, Friendly’s hired hand. Like Bryant, Stains seizes his brief moments and gets the most out of them with his mighty singing voice.
Director John Pascoe has cast this production well. The character — and complement each other perfectly. As with all of Pascoe’s operas there’s a huge emphasis on visuals. This time the floral theme is taken to an extreme.
The set, designed by Pascoe, mainly consist of the tall garden walls, weathered with creeping vines, as sturdy-looking and imposing as Rapunzel’s tower. These walls are moved between scenes to make interiors and exteriors, giving the sense that we’re viewing Testy’s domain from different angles. There’s one particularly nice scene change that has some characters reacting to the moving walls, staring in awe at a shining, shifting backdrop.
Downstage there’s the well. Hob’s family seems to live beside it or underneath it, as they ascend from an underground dwelling to tend to the flowers on either side of the stage. Pascoe is presumably suggesting a forced perspective, with the family living further away from the garden and closer to the audience. But in reality, it looks like they’re climbing out of a hobbit hole.
The overall effect of Pascoe’s set and lighting is pastoral, sunny, green, and abundant, encouraging Flora to do some blossoming of her own. His color-coded costumes associates the peasants with the land (they’re dressed in brown, green, and other earthy hues) and the antagonistic higher-ups with darker, more dangerous tones that match their singing. Flora and Friendly are dressed in light colors, Flora in a white come-marry-me dress, Friendly in cream with gold buttons.
The characters are further delineated by their theme tunes, divvied out by Bruce with strict Wagnerian orchestration. The composer creates a vivid musical world using only flute, oboe, bassoon, violin, guitar, and harpsichord, performed by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. The themes allow for some opportunities for evocative duets, and there’s particularly noteworthy flute and harpsichord playing.
Bruce uses his knowledge of 1700s’ music to incorporate nods to popular composers of the day. The catchiest songs come near the end of the opera. Will and Coley (bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos) sing “Stand Have a Care,” stalling Testy while Flora tries to escape his clutches. Flora indicates her refreshingly pragmatic view of marriage when she sings the line, “let me not discover if you’re a faithless lover.” Cheerful songs like “Let Every Face with Smiles Appear” help bring the opera to a rousing conclusion.
The village scenes, with a cast of almost 20 singers on stage, are a good example of Sara Erde’s clever choreography. She makes their movements look spontaneous and natural while still coordinating and mirroring other activities on stage. Pascoe and Erde make sure that all characters have something to do at all times, which helps to develop their personae and sustain visual interest. It’s no mean feat considering that the title character spends most of her time trapped on a terrace, set apart from everyone else.
The fight direction is less impressive, especially considering the pedigree of B.H. Barry. He’s the winner of a special 2010 Tony Honor and the self-proclaimed originator of the term “fight director.” There’s a nifty cudgel fight between Hob and Jonathan the henchman, but apart from that, the bouts come off as miserably fake. To make a punch or a kick look real, a performer has to react to the impact. McPherson doesn’t do that with any believability. It was hard to hear his cries of pain over the snorts of derision in the audience. Sure, operas can get away with artifice, but in that case why bring in a stage combat specialist?
There are other distractions. The birdsong — particularly an owl hooting during night scenes — is repetitive. The lighting designed by Pascoe and Ruth Hutson is rarely subtle. At night, two bright lights shine down on the walls, drawing the eye to the top of the proscenium instead of the action on stage. When Flora says her heart’s all afire, the set is lit amber in response.
As befits a 18th Century popular opera, there’s a lot of crude humor in Flora. Even the main characters are pretty forthright about their basic instincts. Most of these references are verbal, the kind that would not be picked up by children; in fact we would have liked to see a more authentic ballad opera, one more authentic than this sanitized version. As it stands, Flora isn’t half as funny as it should be; a fake dog got the biggest laugh of the night. Hob, Will, and Testy are a joy to watch, but they get more smiles than laughter.
This is an entertaining opera that will appeal to its target mature audiences. Its plot is too thin, the music too quaint, and the humor too tame to make it really effective, but Pascoe, Bruce, and their associates should be commended for making this historical curiosity work as a Spoleto event.