BY SANDY STAGGS
When Jenna Tamisea Elser was hired last summer to reinvigorate the opera program at Converse College, one could scarcely imagine the end-result would be such a sumptuous affair as “Summer and Smoke.”
Co-founder of Glow Lyric Theatre, South Carolina’ only professional opera company, Ms. Tamisea Elser has brought to the stage a rarely-produced opera based on Tennessee Williams’ final entry in his Southern Gothic trilogy that include his better-known masterpieces “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
With an understated score by Lee Hoiby, reflecting the composer’s background as a classical pianist, and Lanford Wilson’s libretto faithfully executed from its source material, this 1971 opera brims with religious overtones, small town angst in turn of the last century Mississippi, and the dichotomy of unbridled and repressed sexuality.
In the opening scene, a morose piano riff cascades as our demure protagonist Alma Winemiller (the delightful Natalie Longobardo) remembers her childhood crush on her neighbor, John Buchanan, Jr. as their two younger versions frolic and innocently flirt around a towering cubist sculpture of an Angel named Eternity, an impressive creation by scenic designer and Converse Professor Margaret Hanna Tominaga.
The adult Alma, the prim and inhibited daughter of a minister (sung by Dr. Christian Elser, the other co-founder of Glow), teaches music lessons and secretly observes John (the dashing lead baritone Andrew Wannigman) from the rectory window. She tolerates her father and babysits her floundering, deranged mother (Lindsey Brakhage) – another mainstay trope in the Williams canon – who has an unhealthy obsession with ice cream and an embarrassing habit of shoplifting.
Alma has “saved” herself all of these years with hopes of ultimately winning over John, now a doctor like his father. But John is intent on eschewing the medical profession, taking to hard drinking, loose women, gambling, drugs and even watching cockfights at the Moon Lake Casino, a place of debauchery referenced in all three plays in the trilogy.
John does desire Alma, but only for physical gratification, and she resists his advances until discovering he is engaged to a Mexican tartlet named Rosa Gonzales (Sherami Harris). But by then, a tragedy has occurred and John has reformed himself into a reputable man and town hero intent on marrying Alma’s former pupil, the refined Nellie Hewell (the incredible soprano Sarah Jane Gibbs).
“Summer and Smoke” is not a grandiose opera, but succeeds in its intimacy, a facet not lost on its leads or its director. Ms. Longobardo, staff accompanist at Converse and Lawson Academy, is an exquisite soprano and actor, exemplifying modesty and restrained desire. And Wannigman, one of a handful guest professional artists is . . . well, phenomenal. Plucky and debonair, his John is suave and profoundly irresistible.
Alma’s ordered life is constantly juxtaposed with the anarchy in his nightly exploitations. Ms. Tamisea Elser accomplishes their spatial connection often through a gaze, but it’s their few moments of intimacy that provide the passion in this work. And though there is no consummation on stage, the amorous situations are steamy and rife with carnal closeness.
The playwright’s symbolism and sexual themes shine in these scenes. Early on, Alma nervously unbuttons her blouse for John to examine her heart in his office, admitting there is a doppelganger within her, just waiting to be exposed. And the episode replays later but with Alma seductively offering herself on the exam chair, as John rebuffs her advances.
Also superbly performed is the scene when John delineates the concept of the soul – Alma means “soul” in Spanish. The brain, the heart, and the sex organs are physically represented on a diagram of the human body. But, as Alma sings, the soul may not be represented on that picture, but she feels it and it exists.
While the score features a few melodic arias and duets, as well as Mexican mariachi flavors), but few really stand out. And there are no ensemble pieces aside from a gorgeous scene during the meeting of Alma’s art club meeting.
This production is collaboration between Converse Opera Theatre and Theatre Converse and Dance Converse in an amalgam of students and faculty buoyed by some guest professionals, including Dr. Elser, Hernan Juston and Roddey Smith.
Tominaga’s set offers enchanting perspective and novel quick transformation into the doctor’s office and the Angel statue is phenomenal , exemplifying the cubism movement that was raging in Europe at the time by artists such as Picasso and Braque.
Converse professor Melissa Owens’ period costumes are exquisite and Maranda DeBusk’s lighting accentuates the sexual overtones with summer oranges and passionate purple hues.
Other major Converse faculty contributions on this production include Keith Jones as music director and Naina Dewan as choreographer. Converse grad Mary Frances Watford is Stage Manager and senior Hannah Burgess is sound designer.
“Summer and Smoke” is at Twichell Auditorium, 580 East Main S Street in Spartanburg. Performances continue Saturday, Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 28 at 3 p.m. Tickets are Adults $15, Seniors $12, Students $10. Free for Converse students and faculty. Call the Box Office at 596-9725 or visit www.converse.edu.