One of the most amazing things I have discovered in this whole process to bring The Opera Insider to life is the inherent willingness of people to give of themselves and their time. From people who support us simply by spreading the word about TOI to those who spend hours upon hours helping us put together Excel spreadsheets and Press Releases (thank you, Paulo and Rachel!), we know we would be nowhere without you. Here's just one more example. Going out of his way, I'm quite sure, a good friend, Tim Ribchester, agreed to trek all the way from Philly to Dumbo, Brooklyn in the pouring rain to review a performance for us last weekend. Here are his thoughts on "Opera Grows in Brooklyn." I for one do not intend to miss another installment of this remarkable series!!!
My assignment to visit the inauspiciously named DUMBO area in Brooklyn began less than auspiciously itself; at least a month’s worth of built-up Philly deluge soaked me and my fellow Megabus passengers as we waited in vain for the bus. Not the ideal state in which to be attending an opera, let alone reviewing one, and certainly not in the trendy environs of the Galapagos Art Space, round the corner from Fulton Landing where patrons of Grimaldi’s legendary pizzeria and the Bargemusic chamber concerts enjoy soaring views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. DUMBO is clearly a neighborhood where anything goes, not so much an alternative lifestyle district as a cultural blank slate. The Galapagos Art Space auditorium, in a warehouse-like building near the riverbank, evokes its island namesake with reflecting pools that wind their way snugly around the tables where, jazz-club style, audiences can order food and drinks while enjoying the show. I quickly ordered a glass of Malbec, which tends to transport me far beyond worldly annoyances like drenched socks, and listened with curiosity to the emcee double act of Matthew Gray (American Opera Projects) and Anne Ricci (Opera on Tap) as they introduced the show with the kind of dry wit that Philadelphians like me tend to be starved of, whether we know it or not.
The idea of enjoying booze with your bel canto, and thus promoting the free flow of opera in venues where one would not expect to find it, is central to Opera on Tap’s mission; American Opera Projects, meanwhile, has the more sober function of finding and funding cutting-edge material by operatic composers, performers and producers. Tonight they were partnering to present the fifth installment of “Opera Grows in Brooklyn,” a series begun in March 2009 to promote the borough and Galapagos in particular as an operatic “breeding ground.” It looks on paper like a very fruitful partnership and that is exactly what came across in practice, with the eclectic and sometimes challenging musical offerings being beautifully framed by the contemporary space and the relaxed, social atmosphere.
There were three parts to the evening, roughly 30 minutes each. First up was the theme of “Brooklyn Poets – Past and Present,” juxtaposing two settings of Walt Whitman for soprano and cello with three poems by current Brooklyn grade schoolboys Keanu Stowe, Tristan Regist and Tyler Forsythe. The Whitman settings were sung with fierce theatrical intelligence and flawless voice by Adrienne Danrich, whose astonishing range of expression was well paired with the warm, deft cello playing of Hamilton Berry. The first setting by Daniel Felsenfeld was hypnotic, honey-like; the second, by Andrew Staniland, much more percussive, with Danrich offering a sometimes frightening portrayal of madness while still remaining fully in control of her technique. In contrast to these gritty, fragrant sounds, the settings of the children’s poetry by Gilda Lyons had a sing-song quality, with minimalist and neo-baroque ostinati in the intricate piano parts giving the poems’ inevitable humor room to hit home. Kelly Horstead’s playing was spirited and stylish, though hampered by a buzz coming from either the instrument itself or the amp setup. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Mitchell sang with plenty of humor and verve, if not quite the interpretive resources commanded by Danrich.
The second “act” was a song cycle, Removable Parts, concerning – oh, yes – voluntary amputation, which composer Corey Dargel explained as inspired by his desire to portray unconventional lifestyles in a sympathetic light (as well, in a surreal aside, as the mystery of the recipe for Campari). He also gave credit for the cycle’s existence to the inspiration of his collaborator Kathleen Supové, whose well-drilled piano technique was as much an oblique match for her softcore dominatrix outfit as it was at odds with Dargel’s hipster couture and lazy indie-rock vocals. At one point Supové paused to don a set of shiny blue metal finger-covers, giving the piano a timbre something between a harpsichord and a castanet, only to fling them at Dargel during a song in which he insults her playing. Around this point, a work that had first struck me as quirky, almost cute in its way, began to sound tired, as though the kinky eroticism of each text became increasingly hamstrung by the repetitive, downcast musical style. The sixth song, with a sensitive piano part reminiscent of Satie or Bill Evans, helped to alleviate this, but the final number was an unfortunate instance of an audience participation stunt gone wrong. An amputee named John had evidently written a letter of complaint on hearing about the project, which Dargel promptly set to music. Dargel then invited the author (bizarrely present!) to stand for the audience. “John” declined, creating a suddenly awkward atmosphere, which the song itself, with the most emphatic piano gestures of the evening drowning the text, did nothing to alleviate. The cycle was an arresting, original experience for the most part, but for me fell well short of its goal of being “sympathetic” art.
To follow this with Daniel Felsenfeld’s opera scenes from The Bloody Chamber was clever programming. In another context the subject matter -- Angela Carter’s “feminist” retelling of the Duke Bluebeard story with its generous helping of lusty misogyny -- might have been distasteful enough to distract from the musical design. Here it emerged more than anything as a return to the kind of conceptual unity and coherence that Dargel’s song cycle seemed to be trying to undo. The diligent conducting of Jennifer Peterson highlighted the diamond clarity of the score, which, given the setting of Paris in the 1900s, was aptly haunted by echoes of Ravel, Stravinsky and Brahms. Felsenfeld’s approach was otherwise typical of much contemporary American chamber opera, with tonal, polytonal and atonal harmonies; wandering, naturalistic vocal phrases usually governing the dramatic structure; and the occasional dominance of an instrumental ostinato in passages of suspense. Baritone Ross Benoliel exhibited textual clarity and a creepily understated approach to his character’s sleaze, nevertheless involving himself fearlessly in the more explicit erotic moments, while mezzo-soprano Amanda Villegas lent solid support in the tiniest of roles. The musical highlight of the evening, however, fell to soprano Indre Viskontas (playing an opera singer-turned-trophy wife), whose bell-like timbre could have used more variation, and whose winsome stage presence was almost too consistently luminous for a work this dark; but, the fictional “aria” she sings at the work’s center, while her husband lasciviously worships and disrobes her body, was an episode of stunning theater (credit to stage director Sarah Stern) and stunning musical beauty, evoking ethereal textures from the French music and art of the period.
Perhaps we no longer look for real closure in art, and yet, for all the great virtues of accessibility and informality exemplified by projects such as Opera Grows in Brooklyn, perhaps art still needs to be “art,” worshipped and slowly disrobed, as fiction within fiction if necessary, to unleash its full potential. These questions buzzed in my mind as I finished my second malbec and joined an energized crowd of young opera-lovers (and, no doubt, converts) spilling out into the iridescent Brooklyn night.
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