Marc Blitzstein's opera "Regina" has a tangled and unhappy history. Unfortunately, the much-ballyhooed "American premiere of the original stage version," which Opera Pacific unveiled Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, added only another troubling chapter to the unfortunate story.
Conductor John Mauceri, who served as the sympathetic advocate, and Tommy Krasker, one of his former students at Yale, exhumed all the material that had been cut as the work made its way to Broadway in 1949 and the opera stage in 1953. The cuts included a prologue and a second-act party scene which Lillian Hellman--on whose play "The Little Foxes" Blitzstein based his work--had objected to, perhaps because they were not in the original.
Hellman was right. While her play is dangerously simplistic and sentimental in its portrayal of good and evil, Blitzstein's additions push the material even more so. Today, moreover, there is also something both naive and disconcerting about both of them idealizing that old plantation life before those nasty capitalists took over.
Basically writing a "Broadway opera," Blitzstein used a mix of musical styles, including New Orleans jazz, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, social dances and more highbrow versions of classical recitative and aria.
He placed "numbers" at strategic points at the end of acts, but unhappily he lacked the talent to create any memorable tunes. Ironically, what most lingers in the mind is the introduction to Act I, which Leonard Bernstein must have recalled when he wrote "Maria" in "West Side Story."
Much of Hellman's dialogue was retained, and the shifts from speaking to singing, often mid-sentence, occur seamlessly. It is not uncommon even for one person to sing and another to answer in speech. Rarely, however, does the music improve the original dialogue.
In the title role, Carol Neblett played down the viciousness of the character and played up the vulnerability, but the portrayal didn't ring quite consistent or true. Admittedly, Blitzstein has not made it easy with his ambiguous demands.
Neblett sang, unfortunately, with a big, hollow soprano that rendered her diction frequently unclear. At those times, one was grateful for the supertitles projected above the stage.
The male contingent of the Hubbard clan included John Stephens as an imperious, light-voiced Ben; James Maddalena as a nervous but lyrical Oscar and Scott Piper Gomez as a bright-voiced and callow Leo.
Sheri Greenawald enacted a particularly touching portrayal of Birdie, Oscar's alcoholic wife, and sang with a worn graciousness that suited the character.
William Marshall sang Horace with a tremulous rolling line.
Karla Burns brought dignity and rich vocal warmth to the role of the maid Addie. Renee Sousa sang Zan with a thin but promising soprano.
Kirk Walker was supportive as Cal. Damon Evans was free and loose in the role of Jazz.
The attractive living room set and period costumes were from the Scottish Opera. Arthur Masella provided relatively straightforward direction, marred by some comic exaggerations for Regina and Addie at the start of the second act and odd tableaux vivants later.
* Opera Pacific's performances of Marc Blitzstein's "Regina" will continue on Saturday, March 27 and 29 at 8 p.m. and on March 31 at 2 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Casting will remain the same. John Mauceri will conduct. $18 to $85. (800) 346-7372.