Theatre Reviews
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhoto STL.

Winter Opera continues it’s seventeenth season with another iconic operetta—Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta.”  This lovely old show premiered in 1910. It was produced by the first Oscar Hammerstein (the grandfather of you-know-who).  In 1935 a movie version was made—with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Victor Herbert was one of a triumvirate (along with Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml) who reigned in American operetta through the first decades of the 20th century.  Their songs gave your grandparents’ generation all the romance and sentiment they could ever use.  Many of these songs have great beauty, and I am deeply grateful to Winter Opera for reviving these shows for us now.  (Recently they have presented “The Desert Song,” “The Student Prince,” and a couple of Gilbert & Sullivans.)   I think it is foolish—and perhaps dangerous—to be unfamiliar with our cultural past.

Whereas grand opera so often brings us storm and stress and death, operetta always gives us joyful love fulfilled—and whistleable tunes!  Surely our world still has room for that.  

Before entering the theater please discard your modern sensibilities.  Open your heart to the old-fashioned world you are entering.  There’s a bit of schmaltz—but any Jewish mother will tell you that a little schmaltz is good for physical complaints—and it’s good for emotional health too.  Forget you’ve ever heard these songs before and embrace them innocently.

As in Winter Opera’s recent “Manon Lescaut,” “Naughty Marietta” takes us to the early 18th Century and the New France colony of New Orleans.  At this time Britain, France and Spain were competing for the biggest slice of the New World.  And King Louis was quite aware that a king cannot hold territory with just soldiers and trappers and missionaries.  You need population too.  And that means women!  So he set up a program to transport young women (ages twelve to twenty-five) to New France (i.e. New Orleans, Canada, and the West Indies).  These women were desperately poor—sometimes orphans—and were given free passage and dowries.  They were called “the daughters of the King”.  They were carefully screened for character—as were their potential husbands in America.

It was, if you will, the King’s “bootees on the ground” policy.  The fruit of that policy can be seen today in their descendants—folks like Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Hillary Clinton.

Now our heroine, Marietta, is an Italian Contessa who flees a diplomatically arranged marriage.  She stows away on a ship laden with “daughters of the King”.   New Orleans is racked with fear of a dread pirate.  We meet Etienne (bass-baritone),  the son of the Governor.  Boy is he evil!  He plans a rebellion to establish his own kingdom in Louisiana.  And he is, himself, secretly the dread pirate!  But bold Captain Warrington (tenor) and his rag-tag militia have saved Marietta’s ship from pirate attack.  

Word from France has everyone searching for the missing Contessa.  Marietta disguises herself as a puppeteer’s son.  Conflict and comedy and beautiful singing ensue.

The brilliant soprano Brittany Hebel sings Marietta.  She’s a tiny, beautiful thing, with great dramatic eyes and an ebullient spirit.  How can a voice of that size be packed into that small frame?   She masters all those coloratura flourishes, as in the obligatos in the “Italian Street Song” where her voice soars like a skylark over all the exuberant singing and “zinging” of the chorus.   And she has a lovely sense of melodrama.

Michael Colman sings Etienne.  His rich, bold basso seems two sizes larger than humanly possible—it’s capable of utterly cavernous wickedness.  Colman is such a graceful and confident actor, and his diction is quite remarkable.

Our hero, Captain Warrington, is sung by Zachary Devin.  Now the Captain is a bit of a Dudley Do-Right, but Devin’s warm sweet tenor and affable nature make him most charming.  At first he and Marietta pledge to be “just friends”—but of course Cupid creeps in.  Their “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” is the essence of romance.

The role of Adah, a serving wench in love with the villain, is gorgeously sung by Melanie Ashkar.  Hers is a sublimely professional performance—a deeply sensitive actress with a voice rich in dramatic subtleties.  Her “Neath the Southern Moon” song is to die for.

Mark Schapman, is a favorite on the Winter Opera and Union Avenue Opera stages.  Here he sings the comic side-kick, Simon.  His gift for low comedy doesn’t mask his very fine voice.

Gary Moss sings Rudolfo, the Italian puppeteer.  He, too, is a regional favorite.  His “Pierrot” scene with Marietta is a delight.  He makes Rudolfo warm and comic and convincingly Italian.

Fine work is also done by:

•    Grace Yukiko Fisher as Nanette, Marietta’s friend.  She’s in search of a husband, but not that one.

•    Joel Rogier as Sir Harry Blake, Captain Dick’s lieutenant (conveniently looking for a wife).

•    Jessica Barnes, Caitlin Hadeler, and Emily Moore as “daughters of the King”.

Choreography (and dancing) by Rachel Bodl brightens several scenes.

Scott Loebl once again gives us a set both beautiful and flexible, and Michael Sullivan lights it with his usual grace.  Costumer Jen Blum-Tatara presents the period skillfully.  Wigs and makeup  are by Jessica Dana.  When Simon goes up in society she gives him a wig that is both beautiful and beautifully comic.  Marietta’s hair is a wonderful great wildish mane of black curls—like a 17th century nobleman’s wig.   But it looks quite real.  If it is, congratulations to Hebel;  if not, congratulations to Dana.

Stage direction is by that master John Stephens.  The fine orchestra is led by Mark Ferrell.

Winter Opera presents Victor Herbert’s "Naughty Marietta" at the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center Friday and Sunday, March 1 and 3. More information is available at the Winter Opera web site.

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