Nov. 25 2015 10:43 AM

MSU’s ‘Room With a View’ gives some love to the lonely

MSU’s ‘Room With a View’ gives some love to the lonely

In most love-conquers-all stories, you root for the star-crossed lovers to come together. MSU Opera Theatre’s gripping version of “A Room With A View” made me root for the sad souls around them.

E.M. Forster’s quietly desperate drawing-room drama — painted in vivid symphonic oils by Texas-based composer Robert Nelson and sung by a strong, deeply committed cast— had a happy ending on paper, but at heart was a paean to loneliness.

(Editor’s note: This opera featured two casts that alternated performances. Lawrence Cosentino attended Friday night’s performance.)

The grave face and mighty baritone of Zaikuan Song, a Chinese graduate student, gave the key role of Mr. Emerson a stage presence I’ll not soon forget. Emerson is the opera’s moral center, a free-thinker who looks up at the stars in a world of closed windows and drawn curtains.

Late in the opera, Song unleashed his talents with full force, pleading with the reluctant heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, to give in to her passion and run off with his son, George. By then, Lucy was already a whalebone stay away from popping off the corset of Edwardian conformity, having ditched her hapless fiancé, Cecil. All she needed was a final push.

And she got it. In one of several gut-punching set pieces that brought the story’s stifled passions to a head, Song rolled out his big aria like an irresistible lava flow: “Marry him. It is one of those moments for which the world is made.”

To rub it in, Nelson’s potent, Prokofiev-meets-Puccini throbs surged without mercy from the orchestra pit.

Who could have withstood such an onslaught? Reader, I confess that I cried — for the second time. My first moist eye was elicited by another big set piece, owned lock, stock and barrel by Rachel Shaughnessy, as Lucy’s “old maid” cousin, Charlotte Bartlett. Shaughnessy blended her powerful voice into an acting style so convincing and easy to watch that it made the whole idea of inflating a quiet novel into a loud opera seem completely natural.

The little world on stage suddenly spun into reverse when Charlotte dropped her seeming disapproval of Lucy’s liaison with George — an attitude enforced by Edwardian convention — and begged her to go for it.

“A Room With a View” comes off as “Romeo and Juliet” in reverse — Lucy’s own conservatism is the obstacle to romance, not the people around her. It’s an intriguing switch, but it comes with a price. When young lovers are cheered on by older people whom love has passed by, the pathos attaches to the them, not the stars. As would-be lovers Lucy and George, Katie Bethel and Nicholas Kreider pulled mightily but couldn’t make as deep a mark as their co-stars. Bethel deserves a lot of credit, though, for singing so beautifully and keeping Lucy’s endless indecision from driving the audience nuts. Kreider, like fellow cast member Jon Oakley as the “smirking clergyman” Mr. Eager, looked so young it was hard to suspend disbelief and accept their characters as adults. (George is supposed to have “a darkness” about him; Kreider got him as far as impudence.)

The pouting lips and perplexed brow of Isaac Frishman as the jilted fiancé, Cecil, added one more unforgettable face. Frishman’s hilarious entrance, in which he bounded into the room, fire-hosing everyone with a ramped-up, Pavarotti-esque tenor to announce his betrothal to Lucy, was only the start of a long character arc that bent surprisingly toward tragedy.

In the end, when Lucy dumped Cecil for being too bookish and indoorsy, he meekly agreed with her, but added a reproach: “You might have warned me earlier so I could have a chance to improve.”

(That’s a paraphrase, because my eye was once again too wet to read the surtitles.)

Frishman’s superbly acted, heartbreaking exit added another note to a rich, dark, lonely chord that still rings in my ears.