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At 'Regina,' a Vanishing Audience

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page C01

After about 40 anesthetizing minutes of "Regina," the woman seated behind me in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall offered up her worried review.

"I don't know what this is," she whispered to her date. It was not uttered in outrage or embarrassment, just plain old bewilderment -- the sort a person might feel if she mistakenly stumbled into a hospital operating room and was handed a mask and scalpel. Given the misleading way the Kennedy Center had labeled the piece -- marketing it to theater audiences as a "musical drama" -- the woman's confusion was certainly justified.

Sheryl Woods as Regina's tipsy sister-in-law, Birdie, and Marietta Simpson as housekeeper Addie provide fine, experienced support in "Regina." (Joan Marcus -- Kennedy Center)

Vanishing into the night at intermission Thursday was a good 25 percent of the audience -- the largest exodus I've witnessed at the midpoint of a major Kennedy Center offering.

Though some may have been chased away by the lugubrious melodies and lackluster staging, others no doubt settled on an escape route after realizing they'd been, sort of, er, hoodwinked.

Here's a thought: Why not just call an opera an opera? Yes, "Regina," set to Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," was birthed in 1949 on Broadway, where it closed after 50 or so performances. And yes, there are a few dialogue scenes. And yes, yes, the Broadway vet Patti LuPone has been recruited for the title role in this story of a family of mercenary Alabama connivers who are, to quote Regina, "in love with things."

It's true that the lines between opera and musical theater seem to grow ever more faint. Shows like "Caroline, or Change" and the Michael John LaChiusa vehicle last fall at Signature Theatre, "The Highest Yellow," are musicals that are virtually entirely sung. "La Boheme" is staged on Broadway by Baz Luhrmann and gets nominated for Tonys.

But the flat "Regina" makes no claim on combustible dramatics. Opera remains the domain of a more rigorous vocal technique and an abiding emphasis on sound over articulation. If the music is lord and master, words are chambermaids. On this account, certainly, the "Regina" that the Kennedy Center has revived as part of its 1940s retrospective is opera. No harm, of course, if it's opera with a pulse.

The problem with this disappointing evening -- the first of the Marc Blitzstein opera's four performances in the Concert Hall -- goes beyond labeling, however. The characters of "Regina" are as flavorless as uncooked grits -- each transparently good or evil. The music is only occasionally invigorating, as in a remarkable third-act quartet sung by the estimable Sheryl Woods, Shuler Hensley, Marietta Simpson and Leena Chopra. Woods, playing Regina's tipsy sister-in-law, Birdie, delivers the evening's most captivating aria, "Lionnet," a summing-up of the sorry turns her life has taken.

But these are the rare lively steps in a rather arid Southern gavotte. The liveliest performance, in fact, is by the man with the baton, Steven Mercurio.

The physical package offered here throws up further barriers to enjoyment. Even from a decent seat, you feel you're watching the opera unfold from the end zone of a football stadium.

Under Gerald Freedman's direction, the Concert Hall has been rigged awkwardly for such an intimate piece. The huge Opera House Orchestra sits onstage between the audience and the singers, who perform on a raised platform. Over the platform is a staircase and ramp that loom like a freeway overpass. High above the ramp are perched 40 choral singers from Washington's Metropolitan Music Ministry.

More confounding is the difficulty making out the words. I'll grant that I probably don't hear as well as when I was 25, but the gorgeously expressive voices of the cast seem to chew whole chunks of Blitzstein's libretto into mush.

Several "Regina" principals have performed their roles before. Woods sang Birdie in the New York City Opera's 1992 production. She also joined Simpson, portraying housekeeper Addie, and Timothy Nolen, playing Regina's venal, violent brother, Oscar, in Chicago Lyric Opera's 2003 version. The voices are unassailable. Some of the acting is quite polished, too, especially by Hensley (a Tony winner for "Oklahoma!") as the sickly husband Regina uses and discards.

LuPone, in a series of appealingly lavish costumes by Tracy Christensen, is a fine sneak of a Regina. Her distinctive voice, which once upon a time ignited the firecracker essence of "Evita," is pure Broadway, and the colors in her sound clash a bit at times with those of the more dynamic opera stars. She's a bit of an exchange student here, and although you admire her adventurousness, you also can't help wishing that she'd break into a bit of Cole Porter, or something by the Gershwins.

Come to think of it, why couldn't musical theater of the '40s be represented in this wide-ranging festival by something more accessible? Something, at the very least, that would inspire more applause than head scratching.

Regina, text and music by Marc Blitzstein, based on "The Little Foxes" by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Gerald Freedman. Conductor, Steven Mercurio; set, James Noone; sound, Scott Lehrer; lighting, Kevin Adams. With Timothy Nolen, Mark Ledbetter, Eugene Galvin, Elmore James. Approximately 2 hours 50 minutes. Through tonight at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Call 202-467-4600 or visitwww.kennedy-center.org.

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