Strong voices, clear diction rise above "Smoke"

Next year's centennial of Tennessee Wil liams' birth got off to an early start Wednesday with a revival of Lee Hoiby's "Summer and Smoke." But while the Manhattan School of Music's production was solid, the 1971 opera -- based on Williams' 1948 Broadway flop -- hasn't held up well.

A feeble rehash of Williams' masterpiece "A Streetcar Named Desire," the story also revolves around a sex-starved spinster and a raging stud. She's dithery music teacher Alma -- her name, several characters remind us, means "soul" -- and he's Dr. Johnny, the hard-partying M.D. next door.

Carol Rosegg
Nickoli Strommer and Anna Viemeister star in "Summer and Smoke," based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
Their debate on carnal and spiritual love is interrupted by Alma's batty mother, who scandalizes the town by eating ice cream in public, and Johnny's mistress Rosa, who scandalizes the town by being Latina.

Sketchier plays than this have bloomed into great musical dramas, but I can't agree with The Post's Harriet Johnson, who, reviewing its 1972 New York premiere, called it "our most successful American opera to date." While playwright Lanford Wilson ("Fifth of July") expertly distilled Williams' poetry into a libretto, Alma and Johnny might as well be dubbed "Lyric Soprano" and "High Baritone," so generalized is their music.

A hint of what Hoiby might have achieved is Alma's aria in which she compares herself to a Gothic cathedral. Rich with soaring lines, it's a reminder of why Hoiby's art songs have attracted sopranos from Leontyne Price to Renée Fleming.

Here, Anna Viemeister (Alma) and Nickoli Strommer (Johnny) displayed well-schooled, healthy voices and clear, meaningful diction.

Claire Coolen stole the show as the wacky mom, since soprano Maria Leticia Hernandez and director Dona D. Vaughn tactfully avoided presenting Rosa as a clichéd spitfire. As gossipy Mrs. Bassett, Samantha Korbey revealed a tart, distinctive mezzo with star potential.

Steven Osgood conducted with a precision and pliancy unusual in college productions. And Hoiby came out for a curtain call, applauding and blowing kisses to the students.

James JordenNew York Post