Vaughan Williams’ Rarely Performed Poisoned Kiss at Bronx Opera

Photo: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNYNew York, NY – Legendary playwright, actor, and High Priestess of Camp, Charles Busch’s first theatrical experience was seeing Joan Sutherland in La Sonnambula when he was just seven years old. The kind of reverently melodramatic, irreverently raucous theater that is camp has never infiltrated mainstream opera. It instead lurks on the periphery, flourishing in online blogs, masquerading in sassy tweets, peppering the conversations of many opera lovers who are attracted to the medium’s exhilarating and sacrosanct grandiosity. But you will not find the influence of Charles Busch or John Waters on the mainstage of American opera. We are far too serious, far too safe, far too interested in the commercial to laugh out ourselves out loud.

What a relief, then, is Bronx Opera’s professional New York premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Poisoned Kiss. While I can’t say with staunch certainty that Vaughan Williams was or was not interested in female impersonation, I can attest that he never exhibited an interest in what came to be known and loved as “camp.” First performed in 1936 and presented with revisions to the libretto and dialogue by the composer’s second wife Ursula in 1957, The Poisoned Kiss was the perfect subject matter for the British composer who was best known for his interest in British folk-songs and his inclusion of them in his compositions; however, the story is just too ridiculous to be taken seriously. The magician Dipsacus has raised his daughter Tormentilla as a weapon of biochemical warfare: he has raised her on poisons so that she will kill the first man that she kisses. Dispacus proposed victim is Amaryllus, the prince and the son of her former pupil and lover, Persicaria, who is now the Empress! Conveniently, Persicaria has raised Amaryllus on antidotes. Love triumphs, lessons are learned, and everyone – literally every principle and secondary character – gets married. When you strip away the specifics of the plot, it is a simple story about the abuse of power, love, and reconciliation.

Photo: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNYThe libretto, despite attempts at revision, is inundated with relentless rhyming, an uneven narrative, and extraneous action that enhances the most ridiculous and aberrant plot points. The dialogue that strings together musical numbers is written in maddeningly predictable verse. Somehow Vaughan Williams found enough inspiration in the story to pen a score of infinite allure, innovation, and surprises, combining his long-lauded talent for melody and ambrosial orchestration with tango ostinatos and hues of jazz. The music he provides belongs more to Lerner and Loewe than to his compatriots Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten. It cloaks the otherwise worthless libretto in a fantastical haze and elevates it to something flawed yet quirky and relatable.

A straight reading of The Poisoned Kiss would be a mistake. Rather than trying to avoid the inevitable campiness, Ben Spierman’s production makes the opera’s flaws its strengths. He is aided by an able cast of singers who manage to sing and emote with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks.

Essential to this execution were the conviction and comedy of Hannah Rosenbaum as Tormentilla and Cabiria Jacobsen as her maid, Angelica. Rosenbaum had the impossible task of playing a young girl who drinks arsenic like its diet coke and spends most of her time with a pet cobra. Rather than play up the caricature, Rosenbaum made Tormentilla into a three-dimensional human being while delivering lines like “O, my goatherd!” and “My kisses are sulphuric” with a knowing glint in her eye and her pristine soprano. Likewise, Jacobsen compensating for an over-darkened tone and suspicious diction with a brand of physical comedy and Bea Arthur-esque timing that does not exist on operatic stages. She had an able partner in Jeremy Moore as Gallanthus, the requisite baritone sidekick to the prince.

Photo: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNYAs Prince Amaryllus, tenor Kirk Dougherty was the vocal star of the show. His Act II serenade to a sleeping Tormentilla which lead into a duet and then the outstanding Act II finale was the ideal vehicle for his limitless iridescent instrument.

As the feuding magician-parents, Richard Bozic (Dipsacus) and Leslie Swanson (Persicaria) exhibited authoritative stage auras and handled their dialogue with the appropriate level of over-pronounced pretension and dry humor that perfectly into Spierman’s concentration on the absurd. However, through no fault of the singers, I could have done without their reconciliation that weighed down Act III in slow ballad after slow ballad. I agree that it is important to hear a seldom performed work in its entirety, but this is one of a handful of musical-dramatic moments in the score that I would eliminate in future productions.

Speaking of future productions, what is the value of The Poisoned Kiss? Should it take its place in the standard operatic repertory? Definitely not. Is it a worthwhile novelty? That depends. The raw material is barely serviceable – it is saved only by the treasure of musical  magic that Vaughan Williams injects throughout the score. But if enlivened with a fresh and fearless artistic approach as Ben Spierman’s, the peerless playing of the Bronx Opera orchestra lead by Michael Spierman, and a cast of singers who are willing to take a chance on irreverence, The Poisoned Kiss could provide a welcome opportunity for the opera community to loosen the cummerbunds and laugh at itself.

Photo: Andrew Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY

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