|Rachel Barg, Sooyeon Kang, Theodore Christman, Madison Marie McIntosh, Jennifer Allenby, Alyssa Brode, and Nobuki Momma|
Theodore Christman has been on our radar screen for two and a half years, since Madison Marie McIntosh performed a song cycle he wrote and accompanied at the piano. Mr. Christman writes music that is accessible and tuneful; it is anything but academic. We were very enthusiastic.
We have since heard a couple of short operas he composed which he customarily pairs with a well known opera by a "dead white male". Yesterday, at the National Opera Center, we heard two of his one-act operas--a reiteration of Adriana McMannes and a new opera entitled A Metamorphosis.
The first is is an Upstairs/Downstairs tale in which a widower falls in love with his daughter's governess. The obstacle to their marriage is the widower's mother-in-law who spreads ugly gossip about the governess' mental stability. Fortunately she is made to retract her words and the tale has a happy conclusion.
A new director, Mark Watson, has changed the tone of the work and pushed it in the direction of over-the-top comedic melodrama, with exaggerated gestures. Marvelous mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh gamely gave the director what he asked for with no sacrifice of her prodigious vocal skills. She was particularly excellent with the coloratura work in the second act, in which she batted her eyelashes in time with the trill. Her love duets with the miscast tenor Kevin Courtemanche produced some lovely harmonies.
Reprising her role as Mrs. Fowler was Sarah Knott, a very different sort of mezzo-soprano who relished her role as the mother-in-law from hell. Soprano Eugenia Forteza made a fine showing as the disagreeable Mrs. Tonti who employed Adriana.
The flaw in the work was Anna Winslow's libretto. The story seems to belong to a different epoch, one in which the rumor of mental illness might lead to ostracism and when a woman making an overture toward a man would be shocking. We couldn't help thinking of Britten's comedy Albert Herring, the libretto of which is also "old fashioned" but consistent, whereas this libretto is uneven in tone. Furthermore, many of the words seemed tortured into submission in order to fit the vocal line, especially in the recitativi. Mr. Christman's music deserves better!
The second work on the program, A Metamorphosis, also seemed burdened by an anachronistic and awkward libretto. A woman named Arinyae (mezzo-soprano Rachel Barg) runs a theater named Shadowland as a sort of commune, providing food and shelter to homeless teens, in exchange for their services as actors and artists.
The framing device was a lonely old woman named Juniper who is reflecting back on her youth as a part of this group. In this role, Ms. McIntosh used bodily gesture as well as vocal color to portray both the elderly woman and the teenager she recalls. Her singing was exceptional.
But the story is muddled with an unnecessary sub-plot about the members of the group dealing drugs by delivering paintings to Buzzman, the owner of a lamp store played by Mr. Courtemanche, who was more believable in this role than he was as a romantically inclined widower.
One of the members of the group named Peter (sung by the fine baritone Nobuki Momma) falls in love with the daughter of an insect-obsessed drug addict client (bass baritone Sean Kroll); her name is Clover (bright voiced soprano Alyssa Brode) and she joins the theater commune as well, to the dismay of Juniper who also loves Peter.
There is also an overdose by Soka (soprano Jennifer Allenby) and Ariyae's death with the theme of soul possession. Does this sound like too many threads for a one-act opera? It did to us! A retrospective view of the 60's is a great idea but this tale did not succeed.
The piano score was played to perfection by Music Director Marijo Newman. We do not know whether Mr. Christman has orchestrated the works but that would surely be something to look forward to. We would like to see his music get the libretto it deserves.
We acknowledge that the libretti we heard yesterday did rhyme and scan, which is admirable, but they were clunky and often unsingable. We think a one-act opera should focus on a simple story and be told clearly. English is spoken in short phrases that are "punchy"; it is difficult to be lyrical in English. Broadway lyricists seem to have mastered the art. So should opera lyricists!
(c) meche kroop