There are a number of small opera companies in New York that would do well to consider producing chamber opera but Juilliard Opera actually presents them in the small Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater. Artists from Juilliard Opera, mostly graduate students with ample performing experience and enough talent to have won multiple awards and grants, have the gifts and the enthusiasm to bring to light some works that are rarely seen and heard.
Last night two very unusual works were presented--Benjamin Britten's 1964 work Curlew River and Ralph Vaughn Williams' 1927 work Riders to the Sea. Britten wrote Curlew River as one of three church parables; it is a story of healing and redemption. The libretto by William Plomer is based upon a Noh play written by Sumidagawa in the 15th c. about a Ferryman who transports a group of pilgrims, a traveler and a madwoman across the river to the grave of a child who died there; the grave has become a sacred spot and famous for healing. Britten's music is highly original and influenced by Japanese instruments.
The Madwoman, a "skirt" role created for Peter Pears, was sung by tenor Kyle Bielfield; his sweet voice and dramatic skills emphasized the woman's pain, sorrow, bizarreness and outsider status, a favorite theme of Britten's. The composer's use of the flute (here played by Daniel James) to represent her character reminded us of Lucia di Lammermoor's mad scene.
The role of the Ferryman was taken by baritone Tobias Greenhalgh whose rich baritone and ease in acting were more than adequate to create a believable character. The instrument who represented him was the French Horn, played by Jordan James. The Traveler was sung by another excellent baritone Emmett O'Hanlon, of whom we hope to hear more. Bass-baritone Davone Tines used the depth of his voice to fine advantage as the Narrator.
As is traditional in Noh theater, all the major roles were taken by men with the exception of the spirit of the dead boy which was movingly sung by soprano Ying Fang. The chorus of male pilgrims had such fine diction that one couldn't complain of missing a single word.
Aside from the flute and horn, the work was scored for viola (Sara Ordonez), double bass (Zachary Green), percussion (Jeremy Smith), organ (Julius Abrahams) and harp (Margaret Davis)--all member of the outstanding Juilliard Orchestra.
Alexis Distler's simple setting, which served for both operas, was spare and effective. Performed in the round, there were two low platforms; one served as the ferry, the other as a gravesite. Costumes by Sydney Maresca were simple casual street attire with bare feet. Only the spirit of the boy had a strongly Japanese look with long pants legs that trailed off behind Ms. Fang as she walked.
The second opera, Riders to the Sea, made use of a libretto based on J.M. Synge's play of the same title. It was clear that Mr. Williams' attempted to create a vocal line that reflected the peculiar sentence structure and lilt of the Irish dialect but this was not entirely successful. Mark Shapiro conducted the work and the lone piano was played by Adam Nielsen. We wondered whether the music might have sounded better with the orchestral colors intact. As performed, it felt more like a play with music than an opera.
The powerful singing compensated for the lack of interest in the music. Mezzo Lacey Jo Benter has a wonderful chocolatey sound and sufficient acting chops to involve us in the unremitting grief of a mother who has already lost husband, father-in-law and four sons to the sea--and in the course of the work is to lose her last two boys. Her wordless lament and the ending dirge, in which she is joined by a female chorus, left us close to tears. Her two daughters were portrayed by sopranos Simone Easthope and Laura Mixter and they too sang superbly and conveyed the tragedy that left us feeling devastated by the end of the work. The last son was finely sung by the aforementioned Mr. O'Hanlon.
The evening was directed by John Giampietro whose blocking was always effective and never obvious. These were risky works to put on stage and could not have been done better. Although done in the round, there was never a time when we felt behind the action. Rather we felt a part of it. Perhaps that's why we left with tears in our eyes.
(c) meche kroop