Marc Blitzstein's opera "Regina" is full of contradictions. The story is ugly but the music is often beautiful. It's filled with tough talk that melts into song. And, by the end, at least one character discovers that her paradise is also her prison.
It's tricky to make this "music-play," as Leonard Bernstein called it, both sparkle and sting. And overall the student-faculty production by Catholic University, Friday at the Hartke Theatre, succeeded.
Based on Lillian Hellman's play "The Little Foxes," "Regina" details a crumbling Southern family at the dawn of the 20th century. Its get-rich-quick scheming brings out the worst in everybody, especially the title character. "To want and to take is the best thing of all," sings Regina, a suitable mantra for her and the rest of the robber baron capitalists.
Any successful "Regina" requires a vibrant singer-actress in the lead role. And soprano Kristin Green probably wasn't the first to channel some of the glorious bitch in Bette Davis's commanding performance from the film version of the play. Green barked orders and fired off steely-eyed threats. Yet some scenes needed more bile, especially when spitting out years of pent-up hatred at her ailing husband. Still, Green measured her phrasing wisely, allowing rich tones to shine with a glint of silver.
Others in the cast might have drawn on her passion. Regina's brother Ben is a controlling schemer, but Patrick Davey's low-energy performance was better suited to the weaker brother Oscar, played by Leon Griesbach. Stephanie Piraino was convincing as his pitiable wife Birdie. But her confessional aria, recounting a life soured into alcoholism, wasn't effectively staged. Julie Moore downplayed the servant Addie. She needed more blues in her evocative lullaby. Richard Odom was spot-on as the empty-headed son Leo, and Alicia Waldt showed spunk as Regina's daughter Alexandra, who defies the family in the end by leaving.
Blitzstein's score follows a path paved by Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." It's a blend of jazz, ragtime and spirituals with hints of Copland and dissonance. The brilliant Act 3 "Rain Quartet" mixes Rossinian wit with a shot of Southern melancholy. With only a few bumps, conductor Kate Tamarkin led the CUA Symphony, leaving the seams between the patchwork of styles barely noticeable.
"Regina" had a lackluster opening on Broadway in 1949, but has since quietly earned a place in American music theater. Its colorful score isn't dated, and its themes resonate all too clearly today.