The Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum saw the world premiere of The World Is Round by James Sellars (seen April 24). Its libretto was adapted by Juanita Rockwell from the book by Gertrude Stein, whose Four Saints in Three Acts with Virgil Thomson opened at the same theater (then called the Avery) in 1934. Stein's 1939 children's book is about Rose ("is a rose is a rose..."), who learns of the world, triumphs over it and finds her identity. The playful, rhythmic language (thanks to the cast's crystalline diction, few words were lost) invites musical setting. Scored for an orchestra of twelve and five singers, who play over a dozen characters, and whose lines Sellars knits together with sparkling counterpoint, the work found an ideal venue in the small theater and a committed realization by Company One Theater.
Though the composer lists numerous influences and devices in the program notes, the piece is no pastiche; all elements are assimilated in his own style. Melodic invention, textural clarity and an apt sense of color are among Sellars' gifts. A witty trio for owls, finely spun tension as Rose begins her climb up a mountain toward self-realization and a haunting, murmuring finale stand out in the memory.
The cast seemed steeped in this opera's world. Under Rockwell's stylized direction, they moved and sang together affectingly. Ginnielynne Meader presided with cool irony as the Moon, while Karen Holvik made a gentle Rose. Jeanne Moniz, Steven Goldstein and Jonathan Hays sang the rest of the parts with style and commitment. Sarah Edkins' sets played with cutouts, ladders and silhouettes to evoke a child's horizons. Priscilla Putnam costumed the singers in sporty white outfits to echo the cool detachment that coexists with the opera's passions. Kyle Swann conducted with a sure hand.
Copyright 1993 by Opera News
Some rationalist culture vultures who happen into the new James Sellars-Juanita
Rockwell opera at the Wadsworth Atheneum may ask themselves, what in the
round world is this tale of Rose and Willie all about? What does it mean?
Those persistent questions run through and through "The World Is Round."
Yet then again, what is meaning where Gertrude Stein is concerned? The great
Stein line gives the answer: "Rose is a Rose is a Rose."
The little girl-woman Rose is the questing heroine of the musical adventure in 15 scenes that Sellars and Rockwell have fashioned from an obscure Stein work, ostensibly for children. Company One publicity suggests that Rose's voyage is one of self-discovery. And that is probably all ye need to know upon approaching the brief, tuneful, quirky and visually haunting world premiere on view at the Atheneum's Aetna Theater in the Avery Memorial.
Besides Rose and her cousin Willie (a name that allows Stein and Rockwell to pun endlessly on the question "will he?"), the characters in "The World Is Round" include a trio of owls (in dark glasses), a Moon, a lion (possibly blue, possibly not) named Billie, and mountains and trees and water lilies. All of these jumble together in a tale that is somewhat sequential but far from linear. The scenes have titles such as "Things Wild and Blue" and "A Chair and a Mountain," all printed on plastic cards inserted in racks on the sides of the stage.
Sarah Edkins has designed a simple, yet striking setting with a huge upstage moon and three blue-and-white step platforms representing mountains. Silhouettes glow through rings at the side of the stage, and cactuslike green trees slide on and off. At one point, ROSE is strung in rose-colored letters across the stage.
Rockwell's libretto is heavily repetitive, with phrases repeated over and over. The idea, apparently, is to approximate a child's apprehending of the words and worlds around him, or more particularly, about her. Thus a child may dream of a blue lion but must accept a golden hue. There is charm in all of this, especially if one summons up those early days of glee in wordplay.
But the special pleasure of "The World Is Round" is Sellars' melodic, modernistic, yet richly musical score, set for a fine chamber ensemble of 12 under the direction of Michael Barrett. This is music of easy accessibility, and probably of great sophistication, though it would take a more educated musical sensibility than this one to begin to identify the sources being quoted in what the composer describes in the program notes as a vast grab bag of styles and conventions. Certainly, his parody of the grand finale near the end proves entirely amusing.
Clad in a pale dres (rose?) with a cloche decorated with a rose -- the most striking of Priscilla Putnam's summery ensembles -- Karen Holvik makes a pristine Rose, with a clear, glasslike soprano. She is ably complemented by the full-voiced contralto Ginnielynne Meader as the stately Moon, carrying a Japanese lantern Kabuki-like on a wand, and by the mezzo, Jeanne Moniz, in a variety of roles, including Love (in the second scene, Rose and Love perform a duet that carries some of the feeling of "Lakme"). Tenor Steven Goldstein makes a boyish and bold Willie, while baritone Jonathan Hays roars powerfully as the lion Billie.
In a little more than an hour and a half, "The World Is Round" brings the old musical avant-garde back to the former Avery Theater in a semi-abstract production complete with blue-and-white stepladders and blue chairs. There will be tired businessmen and women who may find it all just too cute and wise and strange. But for a tired theater and movie critic, it makes the world a bit fuller and rounder.
Copyright 1993 by The Hartford Courant