Long Beach Opera links the three works in its 18th season, which opened Sunday at the Center Theater, with various takes on the artist as the central figure. Hans Werner Henze's "Elegy for Young Lovers," the first in the series, presents the most sour and cynical view of the three.
This artist is both a con man who exploits everyone around him and a person willing to let people die if it can provide him with a spark of inspiration.
The only way this vision, embodied in a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, can work is if the singer taking the role of poet Gregor Mittenhofer can project sufficient charisma to suggest a talent justifying his arrogance. Jeffrey Morrissey, with his slender-if-pushed baritone and forced acting, could not.
Of course, he had to deal with director David Schweizer's heavy hand. Schweizer puts Mittenhofer on crutches or in a wheelchair, the better to point up his crippled moral values. The disability, however, is a pretense. Mittenhofer can walk whenever it suits him, which is usually when he's unobserved. One winces at the reminder of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience."
Schweizer makes almost all the characters unsympathetic. He also plays up the sexual angle. He has Mittenhofer's secretary swing her hips a lot. At the end, he suggests some homoerotic relationship between the poet and the ubiquitous Alpine guide (spoken by Jason Reed). This may be a reference to Auden's relationship with Kallman, who was his lover, but it arrives rather late and appears wholly gratuitous.
He makes Hilda Mack, whose mad ravings have provided Mittenhofer with his poems, look even more demented after she supposedly regains her sanity. Even so, Georgine Resick sang the stratospheric lines securely enough, sacrificing clear diction, as did most of the cast, along the way.
Sondra Kelly negotiated the complex and demanding role of Carolina with vocal power and dramatic heft. Carol Chickering and Todd Geer sang the young lovers with promise. David Langan made a solid Dr. Reischmann.
Neal Stulberg conducted Henze's eclectic score with detailed knowledge and affection.
Richard Hoover created an evocative set, suggesting both the airy heights of the Alpine resort and the skewed moral universe of its temporary inhabitants. Adam Silverman provided moody lighting. Gregory Poe's costumes, meant to reflect the '60s period in which the work was written, looked like horridly efficient raids on local thrift stores.
Completing the Long Beach Opera season are Massenet's "Werther" in June and a revival of Rossini's "The Turk in Italy" in July.
* Long Beach Opera's presentation of Henze's "Elegy for Young Lovers" continues today and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. $22-$66. (310) 983-8696.