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.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Blythe Gaissert and Leah Partridge (photo by David Andrako)

It's a grand old ballroom at the Stanford White designed Harmonie Club and we are all atwitter anticipating a glamorous wedding.  We are greeted by liveried servants with goblets of wine and take our seats at beautifully appointed tables.  The feast is about to begin.  There will be live music and we are happy to be seated near the musicians. Crystal chandeliers glisten overhead in 19th c. glory.

There is a gorgeous bride, a real beauty.  BUT THERE IS NO GROOM! Poor Aurelia Havisham has been stood up by Matthew Compeyson.  What a disaster!  But she was stood up many long years ago and has gone bonkers.  And who doesn't love a mad scene? Watching someone decompensate has a weird thrill.  What will they say? What will they do?

This wedding was another one of On Site Opera's devilishly clever concepts of immersive opera. This production inaugurated their sixth season of producing rarely seen operas in unusual locations that are well suited to the material. To do this successfully requires tight creative collaboration among highly talented people.

General Artistic Director (and Co-Founder) Eric Einhorn possesses finely honed directorial skills and exquisite taste. No doubt he helps his singers get inside the characters they portray--a necessary skill since they are often just inches away from an audience member. There is never a lapse of dramatic honesty and urgency.

Producer, Co-Founder, and Executive Director Jessica Kriger has the skills to bring all this together.  Under her guidance, On Site Opera has expanded its sixth season which now comprises three additional events.

Music Director Geoffrey McDonald handles his chamber orchestra with incomparable skill. He was fortunate to have the string quintet known as "Sybarites" augmented by seven winds, percussion, harp and piano, performing the score to Miss Havisham's Wedding Night the 1979 monodrama by Dominick Argento.  The orchestration was quite interesting with growling bass and profuse employment of percussion.

The Hector Berlioz 1829 monodrama La Mort de Cléopâtre served as curtain raiser but was anything but a throwaway. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert made a convincing Queen of Egypt with her gloriously smoky timbre, lyrical phrasing, and fine French diction. The vocal line varied from angular to lyrical, all of which she took in vocal stride. The libretto was written by Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin.

Her costuming by Fay Leshner was completely on the mark and the hair and make-up design by Affan Malik made her look exactly as we had imagined Cleopatra would look.

Although she was not ditched on her wedding day, her plight shared a common theme with that of Miss Havisham. After two successful liaisons with Anthony and with Caesar, she is unable to win the affections of Octavius and commits suicide by snake bite. The rubber snake was so cleverly manipulated that we thought it was real.

We were shaken by this performance although the main event was yet to come. Ms. Havisham was portrayed--NO! LIVED--by soprano Leah Partridge. It was so utterly convincing a portrayal of delusion and hallucination that we feared poor Ms. Partridge would go over the deep end.  Fortunately, she emerged unblemished at the end, her contorted face restored to its lovely shape.

Her voice is a thing of crystalline beauty and it was well employed in the service of the text written by John Olon-Scrymgeour who based her character on the character of the same name in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. The phrases are wildly disjointed and make only the strangest kind of sense--something psychiatrists call "primary process thinking".

It is interesting that Miss Havisham does not lack self-awareness. She opens by singing "It is Miss Havisham's Wedding Day! Unique behavior is expected".  Later she admits "I am a little out of my wits". Costume, make-up and hair design all contributed to the feeling of disjointed reality.

In a directorial masterstroke, the monodrama ended with Cleopatra joining Miss Havisham for tea, thus linking the tales of abandoned women. The audience was served wedding cake before having the opportunity to greet the artists. Performing up close and personal like that with no other singer to bounce off seems to be the most demanding form of performance but Ms. Gaissert and Ms. Partridge deserved all the accolades they got.

Shawn Kaufman was responsible for the effective lighting design.

One rarely witnesses such an effective coming together of the arts. There are many excellent small opera companies in New York, each one with its own special take. This form of producing opera is original and highly affecting.  It is also costly to produce since the audience must be limited. We'd bet that the ticket income doesn't come close to meeting the costs of production. Financial support is always welcomed.

We are already on board for The Tell-Tale Heart, the premiere of a new opera by Gregg Kallor taking place in a secret crypt on October 26th and 28th. Don't miss your chance.  It is sure to be sold out.

(c) meche kroop

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