Aug. 17 2009 12:00 AM

‘Sleepy Hollow’ rings hollow, ‘Schicchi’ scores

A rare opera double bill by the Michigan State University Opera Theatre last weekend played out in lopsided fashion: first as overblown kiddie matinee, then as spot-on adult farce.

Maybe MSU grad student William Withem’s world premiere opera, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” should have stayed a small-scale chamber piece for school groups, as it was originally conceived.

After all, it’s a knobby nub of story: A big, mean jerk steals a girl from a skinny, greedy jerk. Withem and librettist Melanie Helton could have used this pathetic tableau, including the supernatural bits, as a point of departure for dark insinuations about small-town America, but they kept it light by rolling out a series of primary-color, Disneyesque setpieces. “I’m Ichabod Crane!” goes an early aria. “He’s Ichabod Crane!” the chorus chimes in.

Everyone was eager to please and working hard, but to no apparent theme or purpose except to keep things moving. Only the scene where the townspeople get ready for a feast took wing, owing to uniformly fine singing (about cake, mostly) and thundering symphonic swells from orchestra conductor Rafael Jimenez and his crew. When in doubt or conflict, Americans always come together over food.

Bryson Beaver, Saturday night’s Ichabod Crane, was physically wrong for the part, but his performance was the best thing about the production. He sang robustly but with a vulnerable quaver that fused the acting and singing ribs of his performance. His charisma helped hold the opera’s disparate vignettes and moods together, but he really earned his stripes during the climactic chase scene. Despite the un-spooky background images flying behind him, and a horse that looked like a leftover piata, Beaver bounced up and down convincingly, singing the whole time, saving the scene, and the opera, from terminal silliness.

The orchestra muscled mightily through Withem’s busy score, but the huffing and puffing smacked of overkill. Withem, who specializes in film scoring, treated “Sleepy Hollow” as if it were “Gone With the Wind,” and the cloak weighed heavily on Ichabod’s skinny bones. But when the evening’s second opera began, everybody knew why there was a Puccini-sized orchestra in the pit: to play Puccini. From start to finish, “Gianni Schicchi” was pure, wicked delight.

There were no uncertainties of theme or mood here. Schicchi is a social-climbing lawyer who suckers a grieving family of aristocrats out of their inheritance from a rich relative. The twist is that the relatives are so grasping and cynical that the audience roots for the lawyer. In MSU’s flawless ensemble work, the icky relatives moved and talked like tentacles of the same greedy octopus. On Saturday, Jonathan Kirkland brought an amazing authority, zest and graceful good humor to the title role. Kirkland is African-American, and that gave the swindle-the-swindlers scenario an extra edge. (Before Schicchi comes on the scene, another character sings an aria about overcoming prejudices and letting a man of Schicchi’s social class into the house.)

This time, the cast members looked like they were having fun, while singing Puccini’s big, bouncing melodies to near-perfection. The orchestra, soloists and chorus maintained a gaskettight unity all the way through. The effort must have been considerable, but the audience was too caught up in the story and music to notice.