We’ll Sing and We’ll Spiel, but No Sex Till War Ends
Schubert’s ‘Verschworenen’ at Manhattan School of Music
By ZACHARY WOOLFE
Published: April 1, 2012
Before Saturday evening’s performance of Schubert’s one-act opera “Die Verschworenen” (“The Conspirators”) at the Manhattan School of Music Dona Vaughn, the artistic director of the school’s opera programs, announced that the performers would be dancing in addition to singing, acting and providing their own costumes. “We’re aware that opera companies are now doing musicals,” she said, “and we want them to be prepared.”
Whatever your opinion of that trend in opera house programming, it was an appropriate step to take for “Die Verschworenen.” The opera is a singspiel — the German genre of works, usually comic, that incorporate spoken dialogue — and is therefore a genetic ancestor of modern-day musical theater. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is the one you’ve heard of.
Schubert kept trying, but throughout his short career he struggled in vain to compose an opera — singspiel or otherwise — that the public would embrace. He could not even persuade a theater to produce “Die Verschworenen,” which boasts a libretto by Ignaz Franz Castelli, based on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” and “Ecclesiazusae,” that is clear and convincing. (Neither quality, alas, can be taken for granted when it comes to Schubert’s operas.)
The saddest part is that after its premiere in 1861, decades past Schubert’s death, “Die Verschworenen” became immensely popular. While the opera has settled back into relative obscurity, the Manhattan School’s delightful production demonstrated its charms.
The challenge of performing singspiels today is what to do with the spoken dialogue, which tends to grow stale much faster than music. Under Ms. Vaughn’s direction the Manhattan School’s workshop production, which closed on Sunday, justly trimmed the dialogue, translated it into English and updated it. “Down in the dumps again, Helen?” went a typical line, and the plot — a group of army wives conspire to stop their husbands from returning to war by withholding sex — moved along with that same kind of breezy good humor.
There is a lot of gorgeous music here: an overture both emotional and martial; a flirtatious opening duet for two servants; an aria for one of the wives (a sensitive Allison Nicholas) with atmospheric clarinet accompaniment. The lively, talented cast, featuring the school’s fourth-year undergraduates, starred, in a particularly poised and energetic performance, the dark-toned soprano Andrea Carroll as the wife who hatches the conspiracy. In the fall she joins the Houston Grand Opera’s studio program; she is an artist to watch.
It’s clear that Schubert had been listening carefully to Rossini’s tunefully flowing operas. He had his eye on Mozart’s great singspiel too. The wives’ chorus announcing their conspiracy has the seething intensity of “Der Hölle Rache,” the Queen of the Night’s aria from “The Magic Flute.”
The other choruses too have some of the soaring sonorities of “The Magic Flute.” But the dueling male and female chorus scenes in “Die Verschworenen,” superbly performed at the Manhattan School, have a high-spirited power all Schubert’s own.
Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Die Verschworenen Allison Nicholas (on bench), Andrea Carroll (standing) and Sveta Verashnia in Manhattan School of Music’s production of Schubert’s opera.
A version of this review appeared in print on April 2, 2012, on page C7 of the New York edition with the headline: We’ll Sing and We’ll Spiel, But No Sex Till War Ends.