From the moment the cinematic overture begins, any doubts we might have harbored about Stephen Schwartz’s (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked) operatic mojo begin to dissipate. And from the moment Lauren Flanigan appears in a drab print dress, channeling the shuffling sadness of a woman living in a fog of middle-class disappointment, we sense a convincing world beginning to coalesce. From this successful start, Séance on a Wet Afternoon unfolds into a serious but quite accessible opera, suspenseful and musically captivating.There’s a good deal of musical-theater showmanship on display, especially in what I can’t help describing as the “company numbers,” and that’s as we might expect from Mr. Schwartz, who wrote the music and libretto, collaborating with William David Brohn on the orchestrations. His son Scott Schwartz ably directed. The composer’s writing for the musical theater has always had a sober streak, which has helped make his transition to opera a great success.
Yet the opera takes much of its mood and flow from the movies. Based on a 1964 film with Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough (and the novel that inspired that film), the story concerns small-time psychic Myra Foster (Ms. Flanigan, in lovely voice) who, supposedly prodded by the ghost of her dead son, conceives a plan to break into the “big time.” Her husband Bill (the sturdy Kim Josephson) will kidnap a child and collect ransom money; then Mrs. Foster will display her “skills” by revealing the whereabouts of both. The movingly drawn characters move through a taut plot that’s continuously pushed forward by the accessible music and plainspoken libretto; there’s no showoffy flab.
The lovely arias serve to illuminate the characters’ depths, and this whole work is as much as anything else a character study. Ms. Flanigan was terribly touching singing pieces like “One Little Lie” and “Lucky the People,” the latter about the kidnapped little girl (a very good Bailey Grey); the couple, who have convinced her she’s in a hospital, have begun to love her, if, in Mrs. Foster’s case, in a somewhat twisted way.
Minor characters such as the medium’s regular séance attendees provide comic relief with their petty obsessions, while Bill Foster (Kim Josephson) is achingly sympathetic as the husband who loves too much. He is as key to the success of the story and the production as his unstoppable wife.
Effective dramatic musical touches dot the score. Tenor Todd Wilander and soprano Melody Moore, superb and in lovely voice, play the girl’s parents, both broken up over the disappearance of their daughter but responding differently—she with a motherly desperation, willing to try anything, even a medium; he falling back on rationality. “I don’t believe in praying,” the father sings, but at that moment the mother’s high note shines brightly, angelically, over the top. It’s one of the many places where Mr. Schwartz’s music speaks not only more eloquently but just as precisely as his well-crafted words. Another, more obvious example occurs with the first appearance of the ghost-boy, Arthur, sung sweetly by boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo: rarely unharmonic, the score here shifts effectively into a climbing, dissonant mode.
Even in the greatest operas of the canon it’s easy to let one’s attention drift at times, if only from exhaustion. But there was hardly a moment in this production when my mind struggled to focus. It’s a rewarding and compelling work, and though a triumph for the veteran Ms. Flanigan and Mr. Josephson, it is a good deal more: a work with real legs.
The New York City Opera presented Séance on a Wet Afternoon through May 1 at Lincoln Center. I hope it will (and expect it to) reappear here and elsewhere.