Originally created 04/28/00

Schemers fill gothic opera



Somewhere between the grandeur of Tosca and the Americana of Oklahoma, the opera Regina occupies a unique position in the opera world.

It's unusual because of its American roots and use of spoken dialogue.

And Regina continues to confound because, although often praised, it is rarely performed.

"It's really one of the great mysteries in the opera business why this is not performed more often," said Buck Ross, stage director for the Augusta Opera's production of Regina. "It's a piece that plays incredibly well. The story is quite intense, and it goes like a freight train once it gets started. I think the fact that this is so rarely done is emblematic of American opera in general, rather than this particular piece being unusually obscure."

Regina will be staged at 8 p.m. Wednesday and May 5-6 at the Imperial Theatre, 745 Broad St.

Based on the Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes, the opera centers on Regina Giddens, a Southern matriarch whose lust for wealth and power drives the narrative. Caught up in her Machiavellian quest are her innocent daughter Alexandra; her ailing husband, Horace; and her scheming brothers Oscar and Benjamin.

Written by Marc Blitzstein, whose musical mission was to educate and inform through song, Regina was deemed too political by Ms. Hellmann. The original opera carried a fairly overt message about Southern politics and race relations, but many of those themes and subplots have been excised in the 50 years since the opera was first performed. What remains is an American gothic take on a grand opera -- a meditation on the dysfunctions and machinations of a Southern family.

"What's interesting about this piece is that these are such over-the-top villains," Mr. Ross said. "The thing is though, you still kind of like them. There is something appealing about their sheer brazenness, and it's kind of thrilling to see people being that blatant about their wrongdoings."

The production has undergone changes. Less than two weeks before opening night, Joan Gibbons, who had been cast as Regina, fell ill and left the production. Scrambling for a replacement, the Augusta Opera was fortunate to find Katherine Terrell, who had performed the role in the Boston Lyric and Scottish Opera productions.

"It was hard for a couple of days," said Maryanne Telese, who plays Regina's alcoholic sister-in-law Birdie. "This is such a cohesive, ensemble-type piece that with one person missing, it just won't work. Having that missing piece was difficult. Things kind of came to a screeching halt."

The Augusta Opera staged Regina 15 years ago, but Mr. Buck said he anticipates few comparisons between the productions.

"The reality is that we all deal with the memory of opera productions that we've done and seen in the past," he said. "The fact is, though, this one probably has less to play against than many we might do because it is so rarely done."

For those intimidated by the idea of opera, said Marc Embree, Regina might serve as an excellent primer to the genre.

"I think this is a wonderful piece of theater," said Mr. Embree, who plays Horace. "If you haven't been to an opera before this would be a wonderful one to see. It may not be a typical opera, but it certainly is a wonderful piece of American opera and well worth seeing."

On stage

What: Regina, presented by the Augusta Opera

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and May 5-6

Where: Imperial Theatre, 745 Broad St.

Admission: $12-$40

Telephone: 826-4710

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or suhles@hotmail.com.