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The Conservatory Musical Theatre Ensemble struggles with a Lorca adaptation

Composer Michael John LaChiusa at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars 2013 gala
Composer Michael John LaChiusa at the Great Writers Thank Their Lucky Stars 2013 gala
Photo by Stephen Lovekin

The end-of-term concert by the Conservatory Musical Theatre Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, given its first performance last night, is a fully staged production of Michael John LaChiusa’s 2006 musical Bernarda Alba. A one-act adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the show was first performed in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele and featuring Phylicia Rashad in the title role. The Newhouse is one of the smallest spaces on the Lincoln Center campus; and it has often been used for “experimental” projects.

By 2006 LaChiusa had built up a portfolio of ambitious projects for the musical stage, most of which met with, at best, limited approval. He has clearly been influenced by Stephen Sondheim’s ability to create musical settings for highly serious (and sometimes gruesome) subject matter. However, LaChiusa has never managed to match Sondheim’s skills in the crafts of writing engaging and imaginative lyrics and the setting of those words to music. Bernarda Alba is, unfortunately, a case study in his shortcomings.

The Conservatory production should thus be viewed as a noble effort to make something out of not very much. Michael Mohammed, responsible, like Daniele, for both staging and choreography, has a far more impressive track record than LaChiusa, particularly when working with serious subject matter. He also had the advantage of working with ten highly capable female vocalists. (Any male voices are assigned to women serving as a Greek chorus.) Nevertheless, the result was one of those noble experiments that never quite turned out as hoped.

Part of the problem may have been that the Conservatory Concert Hall was too large a space, particularly when compared with the Newhouse. Furthermore, all the woman wore wireless head-mounted microphones, rather than approaching the work as opera singers performing without the assistance of amplification. This led to considerable disorientation of place with respect to the action on stage and frequent imbalance with the imaginatively conceived chamber orchestra conducted from the piano by Bryan Nies. Worse yet, the amplification tended to mangle the all-important diction, rather than clarify it. None of this served Lorca’s narrative very well, blunting even the most intense moments in his highly anguished tale.