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, May 18, 2024


 Nina Yoshida Nelson and Brian Vu
(Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

It was the first time we ventured anywhere near the former site of the World Trade Center. It was our first time visiting the Perelman Performing Art Center. We were glad for the occasion to replace our sad memories with a satisfying experience. The neighborhood has been transformed by new energy, new residents, and new businesses-- the result of a daring conception and successful execution of a plan to revitalize the area.

The first thing we noticed at PAC NY was that the gorgeous new theater was completely packed. How impressive it was to see such a turnout for a contemporary opera! The standing ovation at the conclusion testifies to the success of the project.

What a brilliant choice it was to present An American Soldier, the true story of Private Daniel Chen, whose suicide whilst serving the country he so believed in left an ugly stain on the U.S. Military. The fact that the Sergeant who bullied him so relentlessly was virtually exonerated provokes fury; Danny's tragic death provokes deep sorrow.

The superb direction of Chay Yew told the tale effectively with scenes taking place with Danny's "ghost" witnessing. The acting of the principals (tenor Brian Vu as Danny Chen, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Mother Chen, soprano Hannah Cho as Danny's girlfriend Josephine Young, and baritone Alex DeSocio as Sgt. Aaron Marcum) was so intense that it confirmed our impression that this was a play with music, as much as an opera; we will have more to say about that later.

We have followed Mr. Vu's artistic ascent for at least ten years since he was a baritone. We heard him as he won many competitions, singing Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Rossini, Sondheim, Mozart, and Rossini with equal artistry. It brought us joy to witness the fulfillment of his early promise in a performance that touched us deeply. He was totally believable as a second generation Chinese-American who defied the wishes of his mother by enlisting in the US Army, as so many innocent young men are wont to do, without considering the consequences. That he wanted to prove himself as a real American just added to the tragedy.

Ms. Nelsen was similarly affecting as his mother, attempting to deal with her sorrow by seeking justice, which ended up being unattainable. Ms. Cho, well remembered from her appearances with Classic Lyric Arts and as the eponymous bird in On Site Opera's Sound of the Nightingale, was persuasive as Danny's girlfriend and injected a note of humor as she delicately and tactfully translated Danny's letters to his mother who did not read English. Unfortunately, the audience did not get to hear her astonishing coloratura.

But, oh, the villain of the piece! Mr. DeSocio was so convincing as the bigoted, hateful, brutal Sgt. Marcum that we almost forgot that we were in a theater. 
Several other fine young artists portrayed various roles, among them the stunning soprano Shelén Hughes, mezzo-soprano Cierra Byrd, Ben Brady, Joshua Sanders, Christian Simmons, and James C. Harris--all of whom we have heard in the past few years around NYC and at Santa Fe Opera. It was indeed a well-chosen cast.

That the vocal lines did not offer an opportunity to hear the remarkable vocal gifts of these young artists is our very own particular disappointment, as it was of the tenor who accompanied us. We know that esteemed composer Huang Ruo can write for the voice as we recall from his Paradise Interrupted from 2016. That he can write interesting music for the orchestra we also recall from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera production of Doctor Sun Yat Sen.

We have enjoyed the dramas of David Henry Huang going back for years to his play The Dance and the Railroad. The libretto he wrote for An American Soldier was fine and terse, avoiding the pitfalls of prosy libretti. So how come we have not enjoyed his partnership with Mr. Ruo? This, we cannot figure out. (We also found fault with their partnership for the 2022 production of M. Butterfly at Santa Fe Opera.) We stayed on after the performance to hear a panel discussion in which Mr. Ruo and Mr. Huang seemed highly satisfied with their partnership; we listened carefully to their descriptions of their work together; we still left without a clue.

Of course, a story like this one could be seen to demand a great deal of orchestral dissonance; but Verdi and Puccini told tragic and angry stories with passionate music whereas Mr. Ruo's music struck us as closer to a film score, inasmuch as it may have served to unconsciously heighten the emotions. There were two opportunities for a musically kinder or more tender touch. One was the love duet between Danny and Josephine, and the other between Danny's "ghost" and his mother at the conclusion of the opera.

We have more to say about the music. Perhaps the PAC NYC theater has no orchestra pit because the musicians were behind the scrim which served as a screen for some excellent projections designed by Nicholas Hussong. David Bullard's sound design left much to be desired. The American Composers Orchestra, conducted by Carolyn Kuan sounded like recorded music. If others in the audience found fault with the amplification we do not know.

Daniel Ostling's suitable set design was bare with an occasional table and chairs or a short metal stepladder to suggest a room or a rooftop. The aforementioned projections were excellent and showed the New York skyline and the mountain range of Afghanistan. Linda Cho's costumes were apropos.

The bottom line was that we enjoyed the storytelling and the performances but continue to be disappointed with contemporary opera which seems to ignore the fact that opera is a singer's medium. 

© meche kroop

No comments:

Post a Comment