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OPERA REVIEW : 'Griffelkin': Fantasy by the Numbers

October 09, 1993|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — Naivete can be fun. But it is hard, delicate work. It demands brains.

There wasn't much fun, alas, at the New York State Theater on Thursday, when the New York City Opera staged Lukas Foss' "Griffelkin" as the second installment of its golden-anniversary "world premiere festival."

Wait a minute. World premiere? In this instance, the label requires a bit of credibility stretching.

"Griffelkin," a sticky cutesy-poo non-fabulous fable about a devil-child who commits the crime of doing good, has been around for quite a while. NBC presented a blissfully short (50-minute) television version back in 1955. Full-length editions materialized in Tanglewood the next summer, in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1973, and in Milwaukee in 1985.

An official statement from the New York City Opera claims that the opera was "completely rewritten by the composer in 1988." That, it would seem, is wishful thinking, if not yucky balderdash.

For the "new" "Griffelkin," Foss did some polishing here, some refining there. Still, the result sounds and looks emphatically familiar--even to the lucky many who never encountered it before.

The composer and his couplet-obsessed librettist, Alastair Reid, set their sights high. "To me," Foss unabashedly told one reporter, " 'Griffelkin' might be described as a sort of American 'Magic Flute.' "

Not to me. And, judging by the cool response, not to the ever-shrinking non-capacity audience at Lincoln Center.

Foss, now 71, has long been recognized as a facile stylistic chameleon. Still, he is no Amadeus. In "Griffelkin," a three-act orgy of chronically perky tee-deedle-deedle-dee exercises, he isn't even a Lenny.

His pretty, well-constructed busymusic bounces on and on and on, occasionally incorporating an in-joke quote, usually invoking aesthetic ideals that vacillate between Muzak lyricism and commercial-jingle drama.

There may be enough substance here to keep marshmallow-addicts reasonably happy for half an hour. Stretched to three repetitive acts, however, the singsong extravaganza proves that a little sentimental claptrap can go a long way.

As presented in a seemingly under-rehearsed, bargain-basement production by the beleaguered City Opera, "Griffelkin" seemed witless at worst, innocuous at best. The expanded opus is too long for children, and much too long for grown-ups.

As staged by Johnathon Pape, choreographed (lots of tail swishing) by Deirdre Sheehan and dressed by Susan Branch in the all-purpose slide-show set designed by Jerome Sirlin, "Griffelkin" looked like a dutiful but clumsy opera-workshop ritual. The viewer sympathized with the obvious poverty of resources, but not with the poverty of ideas.

There were no surprises here. Just cliches.

The chamber orchestra did what it could under Scott Bergeson's crisp baton. So did the scraggly chorus, also stationed, for no apparent reason, in the pit.

The large, oh-so-eager cast included Robin Tabachnik as the mini-soprano mini-devil with the heart of mush, Diana Daniele as his contralto grandma, Reveka Mavrotis as a singing statue and Joseph McKee as a kindly-basso policeman. Helen Yu and Julia Parks served as a pair of pleasant urchins, Edward Huls and John Calvin West as a pair of sonorous lions.

Oops. I almost forgot. Elizabeth Grohowski appeared as a rather Wagnerian, terminally mawkish mother brought back from the dead by the incorrigibly virtuous devilette. And Raven Wilkinson impersonated a dancing mailbox while Michael Hayes delivered the postal voice from the pit.

It was that sort of a show.

Foss, it should be noted, began to work on a different "Griffelkin" when he was a just precocious 8-year-old.

"My mother," he reports in Opera News, "told me the story (from Grimm's "Fairy Tales") and wrote a charming libretto for me. And then, when I was 9, I decided the whole thing was silly, and I put it away."

Too bad he didn't leave bad enough alone.

Incidental unintelligence: The valiant conductor of Ezra Laderman's "Marilyn," the Monroe opera that received its bona fide premiere on Wednesday, was Hal France. His name did not appear in yesterday's review. Mea culpa.

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