Opera Saratoga’s production of William Schuman’s “The Mighty Casey” is a gem.
Premiered in 1953, the opera in two acts is less than two hours long, but proves, as many pundits would attest, that baseball is a metaphor for life.
The opera is based on Ernest Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat,” which was written in 1888. Director Helena Binder decided to set the time line in 1917 when America was still innocent of war, the wages of sin and scandal in the sports world and, most of all, when baseball was king.
To nudge the large crowd a bit more into this nostalgic period, Binder inserted a bit of vaudeville before the second act. Baritone Mark Womack, complete with straw boater, cane and seersucker suit, sang in a rich voice “Did He Run?” with appropriate moves. Soprano Leah Dyer in feathers, pantaloons and high button shoes sang “If You Can’t Make a Hit in the Ball Game” with sly appeal. It was all a great idea.
The first act set the stage in Mudville. While the orchestra under Curt Tucker jauntily played, the audience saw the community come to life: homemakers walked by with cakes, a milkman carried a few bottles of milk and the newspaper boy delivered his papers. Garett Wilson’s set was homey in a warm palette with the black and white tesselated floor of the barbershop at stage center.
On the walls were what looked like portraits of favorite ball players. Suddenly, the portrait disappeared and there was the player singing a few lines about his expertise. The light faded and there was his portrait again.
There were no stars in the show unless it was the 24-voice chorus, most of whom were part of the company’s Apprentice or Studio Artists programs. One member was local eighth-grader Liam McKenna, who played the newspaper boy. Everyone sang with gusto and rich tones, and Binder blocked them wonderfully well.
The opera is written in a through composed style, with no real arias but what is sung tends to mirror the spoken word with abstract lines. There’s also some dialogue.
In the second act, the opera came alive. Set at the ballpark with the crowd, the team and the batter’s box with the umpire, catcher and batter, the import of the poem suddenly made sense. Using stop action for Womack to intone lines of the poem before the crowd launched into full-throated screams, the pace quickened.
A fight ensued between the manager, bass Matthew Burns, and the umpire, bass Jeffrey Tucker, who both sang with robust grumbling. Then Casey, acted by Alexander Orthwein, who never said a word during the entire show, came to bat with the bases loaded. Alas, he was not successful and the game was over.
The final moments of the opera were handled with great poignancy, showing that heroes are only human, yet life goes on to a hug from the girlfriend, a fan asking for an autograph and another game.
The final performance of “The Mighty Casey” is at 2 p.m. Saturday