We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Tamar and Judah--photo by Richard Termine
Billed as "music theater", we found Prospect Theater Company's Tamar of the River to fulfill the artistic requirements of an opera.  In case you are unfamiliar with our taste, that is high praise indeed.  It is the seriousness of Marisa Michelson's music that informs our opinion; it is original but accessible and never derivative; it is clearly written by someone who understands writing for the voice both in the solos and in the choral work .  It contributes to the storytelling in a major way.  This compelling work began its life as an oratorio but achieves strength by way of impressive production values.  Daniel Goldstein directed with a sure hand.

The stage is long and narrow with audience members sitting on both sides, referring to the river of the title, red with blood,  which divides two warring nations, one in the east, the other in the west.  Props are simple, mostly a bunch of 6 foot poles used as staffs, weapons or as a dining table; Scenic Designer Brett J. Banakis has done much with little.  Costume Design by Candida K. Nichols is likewise simple, just some rough robes of the biblical variety.

The lyrics by Joshua H. Cohen who shared writing the book with Ms. Michelson are likewise simple.  The story is derived from an Old Testament tale involving a woman named Tamar who married two sons and later seduces their father by donning a veil and pretending to be a prostitute.  This tale has been adapted toward the end of being a plea for peace.  The eponymous heroine, played effectively by Margo Seibert, hears the voice of the River Angel, a marvelous Margot Bassett, giving her a mission to make peace between the warring nations and giving her three mysterious pieces of advice.  Her mother, played by Ako, worries for her since Tamar's father died there at the source of the river.  All of the cast members contribute to the chants of the river, which is perhaps the finest piece of vocal writing heard during the course of the evening, with many strains of what these days is called World Music.

Tamar confronts Son #1 named Onan (Mike Longo) who is a warrior, but she prefers Son #2 called Er (Vincent B. Vincent)  a rather inarticulate builder who joins her in building a Garden of Peace. We particularly enjoyed his aria and was sorry when he was killed by a bellicose friend of Onan.  Later Tamar kills Onan.  (So much for peace!) Somehow she never goes for Son #3 Shelah (Jeremy Greenbaum).  Father Judah (a strong Erik Lochtefeld) at times seems to accept her but rejects her peaceful ideas at other times.  She veils herself and seduces him but ultimately she fails to achieve her goal. The river tells her it will take a long time.  We would have wished for some clearer motivation for the characters in the storytelling but the music got the points across.

Musical Director Matt Aument conducted from the piano and was joined, not in the pit but on high, by Blake Allen playing violin and viola, Brian Sanders playing cello, Ingrid Gordon playing dulcimer and percussionist Mike Lunoe.  Mr. Aument also conducted the chorus in some otherworldly chanting that delighted our ears.  What a perfect combination of instrumental and choral music!

Movement compensated for any lack of clarity in the storytelling.  Chase Brock is credited with the choreography with Christian Kelly-Sordelet as Fight Choreographer.  Effective lighting was by Brian Tovar and Sound Design by Jeremy J. Lee.  Although the amplification worked very well for the voices of the river, lending them an otherworldly quality, we longed to hear the principal's voices without distortion.  The theater is small and we thought it would have worked better.

It isn't often that we get to hear contemporary music that is so original and listenable.  We urge you to see this work before October 20th at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.

© meche kroop

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