Robert Altman's A Wedding

Wed. December 22, 2004 12:00 AM
by John Olson

Speaking to reporters the week before the opening of A Wedding, the opera based on his 1978 feature film of the same name, director Robert Altman admitted he was not an aficionado of opera but that "This production is less opera than musical comedy. This could easily play on Broadway." Though the opera world is not a regular part of my Talkin' Broadway beat, and I'm not an aficionado of it either, I had to see if I would agree with him.

Could A Wedding play on Broadway? Leaving aside the very real issues of whether it could get financing and if it might have to be double or triple cast to manage eight performances a week, I would say yes, it certainly could. Maybe not for a very long run, and it wouldn't pull in the tourists who keep the likes of Phantom and Mamma Mia! running now and forever, but it could find favor among the audiences who are looking for musical theater that offers, well, good music and good theater.

For this world premiere commissioned by Lyric Opera, composer William Bolcom (who composed the opera McTeague, also directed by Altman at Lyric in 1992) uses contemporary song styles for a number of the arias, but his score is primarily classical. It's a rich and intriguing score, perhaps far from catchy in a show tune sense, but still enjoyable and rewarding on a first listening and not much of a stretch for a listener with an ear for the music of, say, Adam Guettel. It's certainly an opera, though. There's little dialogue and much recitative that seems written to showcase the singers' voices. There are many vocal jumps of an octave or more and lots of loud, high and long notes. If I may add my own criterion for whether a piece is an opera or musical, I'll say that if the piece has numbers that might be sung in cabaret, it's a musical.

Opera has traditionally been viewed as being much more about the music than the drama, a sort of concert in costume if you will. While this production boasts a stellar performance from opera stars including baritones Mark Delavan and Timothy Nolen (both of whom played Sweeney Todd at the New York City Opera last spring) as well as tenor Jerry Hadley, it delivers equally as a theater experience. A satirical exploration of the secrets, lies and illusions of the two families involved in the wedding, it has an edge and a wit one does not normally associate with classical opera, but opera seems a perfect medium in which to bring Altman's characters to the stage. Their emotions are so intense and illusions so great that the larger-than-life, presentational performance style of the art form is entirely appropriate. It puts the characters in another world, which is precisely where they are ... a bit divorced from reality. The conventions of opera distance us from the characters and signal that it's okay to laugh at them.

The story concerns the wedding of Dino Corelli (Patrick Miller) and Margaret "Muffin" Brenner (Anna Christy). He's the son of Italian immigrant Luigi Corelli (Hadley) who married into the old money Sloan family of Lake Forest, Illinois under a mysterious agreement with family matriarch Nettie (Kathryn Harries). Nettie dies shortly into the first act, though most of the characters are unaware of her demise until later in the opera. Muffin is the daughter of the very nouveau riche Louisville trucking magnet "Snooks" Brenner (Delavan) and his wife "Tulip" (Lauren Flanigan). In the first act, we see that Dino met Muffin while attending a military school, the only school that would accept him; and that he may have impregnated Muffin's sister Buffy (Lauren Carter). Luigi's wife Victoria (Catherine Malfitano) missed the ceremony due to her addiction to morphine. She's enabled in that addiction by her brother-in-law Jules (Jake Gardner). He's an ex-physician who becomes attracted to Tulip and succeeds in arousing her urges and emotions. Victoria's sister Diana (Patricia Risley) is having a secret affair with the Sloan's Caribbean butler Randolph (Mark S. Doss). Nettie's sister Bea arrives in act two and romances the guest (Nolen), a paid professional guest and the only one of the 200 invited to show up. Dino's best man, Breedley (Brian Leerhuber), arrives after having missed the ceremony while spending a drunken night in jail. His efforts to break up the newly wedded couple seem motivated by more than the desire to join the military together with Dino, as we see when Breedley attempts to sober up a drunken Dino in a steamy shower. Hovering over them all is the wedding planner Rita Billingsley (Maria Kanyova), whose attention to detail and to the female guests gets a bit overpowering for some of the wedding party.

Altman's films are amazing enough on film for their ability to involve the audience in a multiplicity of characters and subplots (connected to each other, though sometimes loosely so) and wrap them into a coherent whole in two or three hours. Though he and his co-librettist Arnold Weinstein have pared down the number of major characters from 48 in the film to 16, the opera still very much has the rich feeling of an Altman film. Lacking film's ability for quick cutting between scenes and locales, on stage Altman accomplishes much of the same effect by switching emphasis among characters in the major settings like the ballroom, a mirrored powder room with multiple compartments used to farcical effect, and an outdoor patio. The set, designed by Robin Wagner (The Producers, City of Angels and The Boy from Oz as well as many opera productions) creates the elegance of the Sloan mansion around a huge circular stairway that doubles as a garden walk. Nettie's bedroom and Dino's bathroom are on elevated "second-story" platforms. The loss of close-ups is a disadvantage in keeping the many characters straight, though (and few people are very close up to the action at the huge Civic Opera House). The costumes of Dona Granata (Amour), elegant and beautiful as they are, add to the confusion by quite realistically making all the female members of the wedding look rather alike.

Altman's satirical bite is not mellowed for the sedate confines of Chicago's Civic Opera House, and the humor in the libretto he wrote with Arnold Weinstein could fit right in on the Comedy Channel. For example, in a little men-only respite held in Luigi's basement "grotto," Snooks explains his conversion to sobriety in an Elvis Presley influenced aria that includes the following lyrics:

There was a time I was a drinker and a smoker,
Playing poker, I really lived in sin.
Until one night, I saw the light,
In a honky-tonk Holiday Inn.

Later, in the powder room, Jules and Tulip plan an illicit tryst in the aria "Heaven, Tallahassee":

Behind the floral drapes,
Two loving shapes
In our motel not swell or classy.
Twill be Heaven Heaven Heaven Tallahassee

The production is filled with witty and entertaining moments. A second act number in which Aunt Bea propositions William Williamson (the professional guest), "I've got a lot of lawn to mow," is pure Broadway in its musical style and its delivery by Nolen and Ms. Harries. One little visual joke that nearly slipped by me was a first act scene in the ballroom in which Jules and Tulip are singing some quite classical, quite operatic music while guests a few feet away pantomime a line dance (perhaps "Achy Breaky Heart"). The choreography and movement is by Patricia Birch (Broadway productions of Pacific Overtures, Grease, and Candide).

Though conventions of opera seem to fight against highly nuanced performances, several of the principals deliver their characters in performances that could hold their own among most musical comedy leading men and ladies. Delavan is particularly hysterical as the born-again good-ol'-boy-made-good Snooks Brenner, and Nolen is so funny and so polished a song and dance man I would have sworn he was a veteran of Broadway rather than opera, if hadn't known better. Jerry Hadley and Lauren Flanigan each get to be both comic and touching as Luigi and Tulip. Hadley's big moments include a mock Italian duet ("Prosciutto, mortadella") sung with his newly arrived brother (David Cangelosi) and his duet with Victoria ("It was at a table like this in the sun, remember?") in which they sing of their first meeting. As the lonely wife made to feel new by the attentions of Jules, Ms. Flanigan closes the first act with the heartfelt "Lord God Almighty (I'm a woman in love)."

A Wedding makes a good case for contemporary opera as a source of nourishment for musical theater lovers disappointed with the current spate of jukebox musicals in circulation and the thinned-out, electronically-enhanced pit orchestras of Broadway and national tours. My evening at the opera showed showed the challenges of finding an audience for new works, though, as a noticeable number of audience members (presumably Lyric subscribers more accustomed to the less edgy classics) left at intermission. Many of those who stayed through the second act bolted from their seats before and during the well-deserved curtain calls. We wouldn't do that, would we? Mr. Altman should make a film about people like that.

A Wedding will be performed on December 17, 19 (matinee), January 5th (Matinee) and January 8, 12, 14, 17, and 21 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Tickets, priced from $29 to $170 can be ordered by calling 312-332-2244, ext. 5600 or at

Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.