Opera is not only alive and well at the Oberlin Conservatory, it’s also adventurous. At least that’s the case this week, when the conservatory’s Opera Theater is presenting the Ohio premiere of Henry Mollicone and Sheldon Harnick’s enchanting “Coyote Tales”
The work had its premiere in 1998 at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, which deserves high praise for nurturing a piece that should have a long, healthy performance life. Oberlin’s production conveys all of the irresistible musical personality and dramatic intrigue in this collection of American Indian tales.
As moralistic as this may sound, the opera never plummets to platitudinous depths. Harnick’s libretto is a quicksilver, funny and often poignant narrative full of engaging images. And not since he wrote lyrics to Jerry Bock’s music for such beloved Broadway shows as “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler on the Roof” has Harnick collaborated with the composer of such freshness and substance. Mollicone’s score for “Coyote Tales” runs the gamut of sonic delights, basking in American folk idiom and affectionate references to Strauss, Britten, Copland and Bernstein.
But Mollicone is no pastiche artist. In “Coyote Tales”, he lets loose streams of lyrical lines that caress the ears and draw the listener directly into the characters’ expressive worlds. If this opera is any indication, Mollicone is something of a radical in an era when too many composers pooh-pooh the melodic element in music. His vocal lines sing and his orchestrations add colorful commentary to the opera’s dramatic twists.
The Oberlin production benefits enormously from the composer’s presence as a conductor. Under Mollicone’s baton, the score dances with rhythmic glee and exudes poetic urgency. The Oberlin Opera Orchestra responds to Mollicone with playing of utmost point, sheen, and spirit.
Jonathon Field’s staging makes imaginative use of the space and his young singers, who move with whimsical grace as they create distinctive characters.
Donald Rosenberg — Plain Dealer