Friday, November 9, 2012
We rarely enjoy operas composed after Richard Strauss lay down his pen; we almost never enjoy operas sung in English; and we do not care for biblical stories. And yet. And yet we had a perfectly fine evening spent with Chelsea Opera last night, happy to have our prejudices overcome.
The curtain raiser was Benjamin Britten's Canticle II, Opus 51-Abraham and Isaac, composed in 1952 and played here by Guest Conductor Steven M. Crawford at the piano. God is testing Abraham's obedience by asking him to sacrifice his favorite son Isaac. In the beginning the boy is reluctant but he becomes resigned to his fate; his obedience to his father neatly parallels the father's obedience to his god. Tenor Eapen Leubner used his robust tenor voice as the father while the son was portrayed by treble Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg who used his pure affecting tone to great advantage. The harmonics of the two voices in the duets were a delight to the ear. Let it be noted that Mr. Wenzelberg is writing an opera based on Grimm's "Sleeping Beauty" for which we are filled with anticipation. This youth is someone to watch!
The second half of the program comprised The Mark of Cain, a new work by Matthew Harris with libretto by Terry Quinn. The story appears to be a fantasy about Cain's life many years after the fratricide, but it is actually based (loosely perhaps) on the Koran and the Jewish Midrash as well as other ancient texts. It certainly illustrates how sexual jealousy and greed can result in tragedies of bloodshed. Cain's sister Zellah tracks him down to avenge the death of their brother Abel, masquerading at first as Abel's ghost.
The story is an engaging one and well-handled. The music is far more interesting than most contemporary music we have heard. The themes are at times vaguely Middle Eastern but always accessible and listenable. The 18-piece Chelsea Opera Orchestra played well under the baton of Maestro Crawford; we were particularly taken with the harp motives, sensitively performed by Kathryn Andrews and the thrilling percussion (Paul Robertson and Charles Kiger).
Bass-baritone Brace Negron made a convincing Cain with some good strength in his lower register while mezzo Blythe Gaissert was an excellent choice for Zellah who must convince Cain that she is Abel's ghost before she reveals herself as the sister. Soprano Kate Oberjat portrays the serpent who tempts Cain; she was in fine voice and got to do some dancing as well. Tenor Jonathan Kline and baritone Jonathan Estabrooks provided some comic relief in their non-biblical costumes as Moradesh and Caleb who serve to introduce us to the character of Cain. God is played in a spiffy white suit by bass Tom McNichols who seemed to have bottom to spare.
Direction by Lynne Hayden-Findlay was effective and her costuming was well-done; we especially enjoyed Cain's royal robes and crown. Her co-founder Leonarda Priore was responsible for the set decoration and the two women introduced the program in unison in their customary charming fashion. Bringing a work such as this one before the public is always a risk, one that here payed off for the artists and the audience alike. One would do well to take advantage of the opportunity to see a compelling new work with more performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday night as well as a matinee on Saturday.
(c) meche kroop