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.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Jordan Rutter, Melisa Bonetti, Eliza Bonet, Matthew Trevino, Danielle Pastin, Wes Mason, Courtney Ruckman, and Samuel Levine in "Masquerade" (photo by Anthony Popolo)

We are rather excited to have heard and seen a contemporary opera that delighted us--"Three Way."  Thrice pleased are we! The libretto was provocative and relevant to the 21st c. The music was interesting and accessible with real arias. The performances were on point, thanks to excellent direction and talented young singers who can act.

Let us begin with the concept--that of a trilogy exploring sexuality in the 21st c. developed by composer Robert Paterson and librettist David Cote. The opener "The Companion" was about a hard-working woman who had recently invested in an android who anticipated her every need; he cleaned and cooked and satisfied her sexual needs. If you think this is science fiction, let us share with you that there is a company already producing these male dolls for female use.  They are, at this moment, inert but lifelike. It is not hard to believe that in the near future they will be cooking and cleaning!

The second part "Safe Word" dealt with bondage and discipline with an interesting twist. In place of a spoiler alert, we urge you to see this work at Brooklyn Academy of Music--Fisher before Sunday.  The third part "Masquerade" dealt with three couples attending a swinger's party at the home of a fourth couple who organized the party.

John Hoomes conceived the production and directed these three acts with style and believable stage business.  The action moved right along as it would in any night of good theater. Mr. Hoomes is Artistic Director of Nashville Opera where this work saw first light, but we know him as the director of the excellent Florencia en el Amazonas which we reviewed so favorably.

The libretto was brilliant. We know David Cote primarily as a theater critic but he is also an esteemed playwright; his skill with words was astonishing. There were no long disquisitions; all the dialogue was short, punchy, and --best of all--rhymed! These three one-acts would have worked well as straight theater. David Ives comes to mind but Mr. Cote is no copycat; his voice is original.

But this is opera so of course the music is important. What a pleasure to hear music that is accessible and lined up well with the libretto, a feature missing from most contemporary American opera. Major props to composer Robert Paterson! A novel feature of the music design is that the American  Modern Ensemble was split in two with a string quartet plus double bass on a balcony on one side of the theater and the piano, percussion, and winds on the balcony on the other side. Maestro Dean Williamson conducted. We heard this gifted ensemble before at HERE in Paul's Case.

The singing was first rate all around. In "The Companion" we witnessed the impressive versatility of tenor Samuel Levine whose work we so greatly admired at Juilliard. As the piece began, his melting tenor was constricted by his role as an android, but when his increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated owner Maya (the superlative soprano Danielle Pastin) purchased an upgrade, he became far more human and difficult, just like a real man.  Mr. Levine's vocal colors underwent a shift as remarkable as his body posture. His final aria,  one that could easily stand alone, was lovely and tender--"You were my first love".

The role of the technician Dax was performed by the fine baritone Wes Mason. Dax is quite a salesman--("Prince Charming is just an upgrade away") and also expresses his belief that "People are just broken machines". The theme of "The Companion" is one of loneliness; it is rather a commonplace and barely needs mentioning but with all our devices connecting us with the world we are becoming increasingly isolated and, in a vicious cycle, ever needier for more connection. Our culture persuades us that perfection is just around the corner and mates are shed regularly for a newer better model.  Behind the light-hearted comedy were some trenchant observations about our contemporary society.

In "Safe Word", the warm-voiced mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet portrayed Mistress Salome who makes her client wait for some time before answering the buzzer of her dungeon.  Matthew Trevino lent his smooth bass to the role of the type-A client who dresses up as a little girl named Polly Puddlepants who needs to be punished. There was just no way to keep a straight face. The situation turned dark before an unpredictable plot turn occurred and we will not spoil the surprise. Just let it be said that the characters are treated as human beings; there is humor but no moralizing or condescension.

The same can be said for "Masquerade", the final entry. We expected it to be something like Eyes Wide Shut but we were proven wrong. Once again, sexual variation and gender fluidity are treated without finger wagging. A young newbie couple (soprano Courtney Ruckman and Mr. Levine again) are joined by experienced swingers (Ms. Pastin and Mr. Mason again), as well as a "gender-free"couple comprising mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti and counter-tenor Jordan Rutter.  They've all been invited to a swingers party by hosts Eliza Bonet and Matthew Trevino who enjoy observing the liberation of desire.

We greatly enjoyed watching the artists assume different roles in each section of the trilogy. Mr. Levine was shy and somewhat taken aback by his wife's eagerness to participate. Ms. Pastin had a great time playing predatory and lascivious. Mr. Rutter had a great moment when he is left out. Mr. Mason had his great moment singing about his "failure to perform" in "I'm angry at myself", performed in tango rhythm.

We repeat--all the performances were superb, both dramatically and verbally.

Moreover the production values were excellent. We particularly appreciated the video design and lighting of Barry Steele. Although the sets by Randy Williams were simple they achieved the purpose whilst the video projections told us even more about what was transpiring. No orgies took place onstage but psychedelically colored silhouettes cavorted in various combinations on the living room wall. In "The Companion", computer language was projected.

Matt Logan's costuming was mostly adequate but we couldn't understand why Maya came home from work in a 1950's cocktail dress when "The Companion" took place in the future.

We were also not thrilled with Sondra Nottingham's wigs.  We know for a fact that Mr. Levine has a fine head of hair and putting him in a brassy ugly wig for "Masquerade" did not serve the character or Mr. Levine.

Such tiny quibbles failed to impair a delightful evening. Puccini did well with his triptych and we wish the same good fortune to Mr. Paterson, Mr. Cote, and Mr. Hoomes.

And we wish YOU, dear reader, the opportunity to experience the same delight as we did, but you will have to move quickly!

(c) meche kroop

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