Stephen Schwartz might easily have rested on his reputation as one of Broadway's most successful songwriters. But the man responsible for "Wicked," "Godspell" and "Pippin" had a higher ambition: to write an opera.
The ambition is laudable. The result, alas, not so much.
"Seance on a Wet Afternoon," which opened for a two-week run at the New York City Opera on Tuesday night, is a tedious affair, its libretto riddled with banalities and its musical score thin and derivative.
The choice of subject was an odd one to begin with. It's based on a short novel by Mark McShane and a creepy 1964 film adaptation that starred Kim Stanley in a memorable, Oscar-nominated performance as middle-aged psychic Myra Foster. The original is set in London, but the opera transfers the action to a rainy American city, San Francisco.
Myra, seeking to gain fame and fortune, persuades her henpecked husband, Bill, to kidnap a child so that she can use her alleged powers to "find" the girl and return her safely to her parents. But Myra, it soon becomes clear, is mentally unhinged, and the plot goes awry — even more horribly in the opera than in the film.
Schwartz borrows a good deal of dialogue from the book and movie to move the story forward, but then repeatedly slows it down for a series of arias and ensembles for the main characters. A crowd of vulture-like reporters, photographers and cameramen provides an excuse for a few choruses, shouting predictably cynical sentiments about "shocking new developments" that they welcome on a "slow news week."
Schwartz's music is tonal and easily accessible, flecked with a few dissonances as if to make it seem more modern. But the melodies aren't particularly memorable, and high notes often seemed to be tacked on arbitrarily to the climax of arias merely to trigger applause.
The cast and production team do what they can to salvage the evening.
Soprano Lauren Flanigan and baritone Kim Josephson, seasoned veterans both, work hard to draw our sympathies as Myra and Bill. As the mother of the kidnapped girl, Melody Moore displays an appealing lyric soprano. Bass-baritone Phillip Boykin is also good as a suspicious police inspector. And boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo sings and acts impressively as the ghost of Myra's long-dead son.
Music director George Manahan conducts the orchestra with vigor, doing his best to breathe some life into the score.
The production, directed by Schwartz's son, Scott Schwartz, originated at Opera Santa Barbara, where the work premiered in 2009. It combines realistic sets with translucent materials and curtains of black chains to try to convey the psychological complexity of Myra's world.
This is the final offering of the City Opera's abbreviated spring season and comes as doubt clouds the company's future. No plans have yet been announced for next season, and financial problems seem to threaten its very existence. It would be a shame indeed if "Seance" turned out to be the company's swan song.
An AP Entertainment Review