The Seedy Underbelly of the Southern Belle: A Review of ‘Regina’ at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Stumble into Opera Theatre of Saint Louis‘ new production of “Regina” unprepared, and you might think that you’re in the wrong place. The opera opens with a yearning African-American spiritual, rather than the athletic soprano aria you might have gone in expecting. A scene later, you’ll find yourself essentially watching a stage play; a half dozen characters debate the merits of a ragtime tune in honey-slow, southern-drawled dialogue. When the traditional tenors show up and the coloratura finally comes, you might feel a little confused—or, if you’re the adventurous type, thrilled by this rare and genre-bending feat.
“Regina” is a seventy-year-old American opera that feels as fresh and daring today as it ever did—and not just when it comes to the score. Based on Lillian Hellman’s classic drama, “The Little Foxes,” it tells the story of one wealthy Alabama family’s dramatic unravelling; it also doubles as a cutting and hyper-relevant critique of class, wealth, race and gender in a country that may not has evolved as much in the past century as we might hope to believe.
The year is 1900, and while slavery has been formally abolished, the cotton is still high in the fields and the plantation owners still brag over how little they have to pay the help. White-glove aristocracy is on the wane, but that doesn’t mean the rich aren’t marrying off first cousins to keep the money in the family. The middle-aged Hubbard siblings—brothers Ben and Oscar, and especially our title character, Regina—have thrived in the cracks of this crumbling Southern gothic, cheating and swindling their way into a modest fortune. And at the opening of the opera, we meet their biggest mark yet: a yankee businessman who could bring a lucrative mill to the family estate, and make all of them “big rich” rather than simply Alabama rich.
Regina herself has a more interesting stake in her family’s scheme. She is Lady Macbeth-level ambitious, greedy not just for a quick score but to eat the very world beyond her stylish parlor room door. Of course, she’s also a woman in a time when even the most opulent Southern dames have virtually no rights to their property or autonomy, but never mind that. Regina makes it clear early on in the libretto that she will do anything she needs to do to earn her cut of the deal—including dragging her dying husband out of the hospital to get him to open the checkbook, a cruelty on which her and her brothers’ plans totally depend. Performed by the internationally renowned and Grammy Award-winning mezzo soprano Susan Graham, Regina is as magnetic as she is devious, as deeply human as she is inhumanly callous. You’ll find yourself rooting for her, right up until the point when she’s done something truly unforgivable—and then, a scene later, done even worse.
The entire cast of “Regina” is stupendous. If your exposure to opera is mostly through snippets of song in broader pop culture, it can be easy to forget that these performers are really multi-sport athletes: those muscular voices are rivaled by deft and powerful acting, and the intimate stage of the Loretto-Hilton center (not to mention their arena-sized subtitle screens on its walls—you’ll never miss a word) is ideally suited to the complexity of this script. As the characters swindle, goad and jilt each other, you can see every layer of betrayal play across the actors faces. Ditto the music: composer Marc Blitzstein’s score is complex in a way that rewards close listening; it was marvelous to be able to hear every dimension of his references (blues, ragtime, jazz and much more) in such a close setting.
What makes OTSL’s “Regina” such an accomplishment, though, is what the audience can’t see or hear, even from the best center orchestra seats. Every aspect of the production is designed to emphasize the Blitzstein and Hellman insistence that the high-society world of the Hubbands is a hollow one, and that no matter how powerful and seductive Regina’s yearnings might be, any desire untethered to goodness or love has no more weight than a handful of cotton fluff off the vine. Set designer Allen Moyer has built the palatial world of Regina’s plantation house out of a few spare pieces that suggest sumptuousness without fully illustrating it: a set of lushly embroidered furniture, an enormous painting of a Southern pastoral scene leaned against the wall in a gilded frame.
The one exception to this pencil sketch of luxury is the grand staircase, which arches up and off the stage, promising something extraordinary upstairs. At the end of the play, when Regina’s finally gotten her comeuppance, she’ll stand at the base of that staircase, staring up towards the finer rooms of her house, seemingly waiting for something. By then, though, the audience knows that there’s nothing beyond the door.
“Regina” is playing at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (210 Hazel Drive, (314) 961-0171) through June 24.