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'Mask of Eleanor' Falls Short of the Mark

July 26, 1996|TIMOTHY MANGAN

Beverly Grigsby's 1984 "The Mask of Eleanor" and 1987 "The Vision of Saint Joan"--the one a chamber opera, the other a solo dramatic cantata--were revived Wednesday night in the University Theatre at Cal State Long Beach as part of the CSU Summer Arts festival.

Both works were performed by soprano Deborah Kavasch. Both have computer-generated scores (on tape) and librettos by Grigsby, and were staged by her as well. Both were poor in quality.

Grigsby, an emerita professor at Cal State Northridge and former student of Ernst Krenek, has fashioned, in "Eleanor," a kind of defense of the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine (circa 1122-1204), who rises from her tomb at the beginning of the opera, rehashes some of her life and then returns to the tomb singing "Judge me," as if history has condemned her. It hasn't. But Grigsby seems determined to cast her heroine as victim.

The 48-minute opera is accompanied by, in addition to the computer sounds, a choir and three characters on tape. Slides of medieval art are projected at the back and sides. Dancers, dressed as hooded monks, sometimes in masks, mime occasionally.

Nothing in the computer score--meandering waves of burbling, modal sounds with echoes of chivalric music--could be called remarkable. The soprano part rides atop it, a rudimentary setting of the libretto, as if elongating words and making them go up and down is lyrical dramaturgy. The libretto itself lacks inspiration. Sample:

"Oh Henry!

We were so bold

We were so brave

We were beautiful

How we shone."

"Saint Joan" was more of the same, only shorter, with a fog machine, and Kavasch in gold high heels. Kavasch, a professor at Cal State Stanislaus, sang competently throughout and managed the high notes well. But they were often broken up by the faulty sound system.

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