Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Saint of Bleecker Street," which opened a sold-out run Saturday night in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, must be one of the most intensely dramatic works ever seen in that playhouse. All of the elements in this production work together: words, music, acting, stage direction and scenery -- a tribute to the vision and integrating power of Menotti, whose special touch can be seen throughout.
Unlike most operas, "Saint" is written in English and has a contemporary subject -- at least, contemporary with its origins in 1954. Anyone who has spent any time in Little Italy in lower Manhattan, eaten in an Italian family restaurant or traveled on the New York subway will feel right at home in Zack Brown's superbly realistic sets, and the characters on the stage are the kind of people we all have met, even the "saint" of the title. She is the sweetest, most natural and unassuming young woman you would ever meet, even though she hears disembodied voices, has visions right out of the New Testament, sometimes suffers the stigmata (the wounds of Jesus Christ's crucifixion) and is reputed (by others, not by herself) to perform miracles.
The story of a curious, ultimately violent triangular relationship among the saintly Annina, her brother Michele and Michele's mistress, Desideria, is one half of a twofold dissection of the society of Little Italy, as seen by Menotti, who wrote the libretto as well as the music. The other half is a tale of alienation and polarity: the story of Michele, an unbeliever, rebel and, ultimately, social outcast, in contrast with Don Marco, the priest who tries to be a peacemaker.
"Saint" was first launched on Broadway, where it caught a large crossover audience, but it is unquestionably an opera in the verismo tradition -- heir to "I Pagliacci" and "Cavalleria Rusticana" with occasional echoes of "Boris Godunov" in the orchestral and choral writing. Still, it felt right at home in a theater dedicated primarily to spoken drama.
One of this opera's affinities with "Boris Godunov" is shown in the role of the chorus -- a multi-headed protagonist in its own right, which brings up the Act 1 curtain waiting and singing a litany, much like the chorus in Mussorgsky's Russian epic. In this production, Menotti (who does his own stage directing as well as writing the words and music) handles the chorus with the hand of a master; it is a stage full of individuals, but they have a strong collective identity and all of their diverse personas and gestures harmonize and focus to illustrate the themes of community (Michele might say "herd") identity, the power of superstition and the crushing force of tradition. The chorus also sings with a style and precision that one expects from a group trained by chorus master Stephen Crout.
As for the casting, one expects it to be strong in the major roles, but much of the impact in this "Saint of Bleecker Street" is derived from the excellent work in supporting parts: by Susan Toth Shafer as Maria Corona, the newspaper vendor who hopes to see her mute and retarded son cured; by John Stephens, who portrays Don Marco with a strong, clear baritone voice and sensitive acting; by Daniel Narducci as Salvatore; and most particularly by Eugenie Grunewald as Assunta. She does not figure prominently in the plot, but her rich mezzo-soprano voice, singing a litany, is the first voice heard in the opera and immediately establishes the evening's high level of quality.
The role of Desideria is brief but intense. Leslie Richards sang it Saturday with a magnetism and vocal power that make me wonder what she must be like in "Carmen." The other supporting roles bearing generic titles such as "A Young Man" or "Bartender" were all well filled.
Conductor Steven Mercurio is sensitive to all of the music's nuances and gave a particularly fine account of the Act 1 prelude and the entr'actes, which have some of Menotti's finest orchestral writing. In repeat performances, however, he should be careful about covering the voices, as he did in one climactic duet between Annina and Michele. Otherwise, this production was notable for the clarity with which Menotti's words usually came across the footlights. (All three of this season's Eisenhower Theater productions have been sung in English, with results that have seldom been achieved in the Opera House.)
Michael Myers, a tenor with a fine, ringing tone, acting ability rare among tenors and a good sense of word values and projection, performed the pivotal role of Michele. The title role will be alternated between Maryanne Telese, who sang it with sweetness, accuracy and power on opening night, and Gail Dobish, who was impressive in the role of Annina's friend Carmela.
But the primary honors should go (as the final standing ovation did on opening night) to Gian Carlo Menotti, who made it all happen and kept it at the highest level of quality. His association with the Washington Opera contributed more than any other single factor to that company's artistic success in the 1980s, and it is good to see that association carried over into the '90s.