I was on the fence about “Show Boat” when I sat down at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Saturday night, and I was still on the fence after the first 15 minutes or so of Francesca Zambello’s production. Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with the idea of opera companies staging American musicals. Indeed, I find it pretty hypocritical to criticize it, given that most people who wring their hands at the sullying of the operatic temple would sit through “Die Fledermaus” or “Daughter of the Regiment” without any problem at all, as if light entertainment is all right as long as it’s in another language. My reservation has been that I don’t think opera companies always do a very good job of it.
So the show started, and there were the nice tunes in the overture, sounding a little slender but perfectly acceptable under the baton of John DeMain. And then the curtain went up and almost right away we had a stage filled with a zillion people (“More than 100!” promise the ads), sliding sets (by Peter J. Davison) and a lot of frenetic activity. It’s the frenetic part that makes me crazy. I tend to think operatic acting is going downhill anyway, because many in this new generation of singing actors simply run all over the stage, thinking this is “naturalistic” behavior, while ignoring every acting technique in the book. And oh, was this true of “Show Boat’s” spoken dialogue — stilted, shouted, mugged. Zambello, in Wagner’s “Siegfried” a couple of years ago, created one of the most memorable evenings of drama I’ve ever had in the theater. Why can’t she get singers to do better with spoken dialogue in their own language?