Magic Intimacy – The Boston Musical Intelligencer

David Mather, Clifford Blake, and Marsé Alaundra

One can imagine few better antidotes to our Blockbuster culture than the “delicious program of bite-sized operas” that Boston Opera Collaborative offered this weekend at the Pickman Concert Hall of the Longy School of Music of Bard College. The amusing cabaret-style setting and unpretentious tone of the evening belied some deeper meanings. Opera Bites presents marvelously subtle musical scores, ravishing singing and levels of mirth and poignancy that linger long after their brief, succinct, almost haiku-like impact.  By appropriating the theatrical idea of triple unity (unity of time, place and plot) for the sake of pioneering what amounts to an operatic form of short story, the Boston Opera Collaborative has found an immediately effective way to breathe new life into the mysterious art of interweaving instrumental color, voice and narrative.

Last night’s program featured eight highly diverse “opera bites” ranging from the hilarious to the wrenchingly poignant. With great attention to his singers, conductor Tianhui Ng sensitively led a piano trio of violinist Colleen Brannon, cellist Leo Eguchi, and pianists Jean Anderson, Yukiko Oba, and Brendon Shapiro in turn, which nicely brought out distinctive tempers for each new score, while giving some consistency to the proceedings.  In their variety, the eight works impressed with distinctive, imaginative, self-disciplined, lyrical and comic takes on understandable human situations. The sober format of a minimalist stage, setting images projected sparingly on a wide screen against simple props of tables and chairs, worked beautifully to create a magic intimacy, focusing our attention on the substance of each work, namely the sound of the intimate stories of our glorious and obscure lives.

Three examples illustrate the range of elicited experiences and topics raised. With a score by Carlos Carrillo and a libretto by Enzo Silon Surin, Last Train featured the tragically dissolving partnership of Marcus (interpreted by Miguel Angel Vasquez) and a very pregnant Lisa (interpreted by Brianna J. Robinson). Lisa tries to convince Marcus to stay with her and raise his unborn child. As though unaware of his deep feelings of inadequacy, Marcus evokes excuse after excuse, including the call to fight for civil rights, to defend his flight – from love, intimacy, fatherhood, life. With the help of Marshall Hughes’s stage direction, Carrillo’s score and Surin’s words coalesced synergistically to face us with our own debilitating ambivalence about the flicker in which we all are called to bear the Beams of Love.

Turning from tragedy to mirth, A Tall Order, scored by John Greer to Sheri Wilner’s libretto, sang the story of a dinner date between “her” (the glorious mezzo Marsé Alaundra) and “Him” (a clueless and amusing baritone David Mather), with an attending Waiter (non-singing Clifford Blake) who visibly undergoes the surprise transfiguration that the plot provokes. With a rich and emotionally expressive voice (think Italian opera in its peroration), “She” agonizes over what to select from the menu. Will the choice of chicken imply that she is boring? Will the expensive Sea Bass imply that she is spoiled? “He” indeed responds to her inner dilemma by interpreting each possible choice in a negative light – until he asks her what she would like, and the answer soars into the night, eliciting a love duet: they don’t want to game each other, judge each other, trick each other. They both really want the same thing —love, understanding, companionship. Jean Anderson took on the solo-piano score of ragtime, tango, Carmen themes and Scarbo-like passagework, with wit and chops. Marshall Hughes gave the singers and the silent-movie-mugging waiter plenty of business.

With music by Jordan Kuspa and a libretto by Dan McGeehan, A Long Trip grappled with the devastating effect of Alzheimer’s disease on a long-married couple. The “Man Older” (mature and mellifluous baritone David Small) tries to get his beloved but haggard wife, the “Woman Older” (mezzo Helen Gallagher), to remember their youthful courting and first kiss. Passionate nostalgia induces the stage materialization of their younger selves — the “Man Younger” (tenor Christopher Remkus) and the “Woman Younger” (soprano Natalie Vatcher). The desperate husband succeeds in stirring, not his wife’s memory, but her love, deeper than time. Beautifully, this suffices for both of them to affirm their lives with a new serenity and to accept the inevitable. Set lyrically against stage director Gregg Smucker’s picture of a modest house with a brightly lighted dormer in the impinging dusk, A Long Trip managed to combine the most lucid realism with the most fervent faith. A more profound, riveting, and wrenching quarter of an hour cannot be imagined.  Real verismo opera this.

The Boston Opera Collaborative’s Opera Bites are New England’s best-kept secret treasures.

Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.

Helen Gallagher and David Small

Hamlet Investigations, Inc.

Music by Jonathan Shin
Libretto by Ellen Abrams
Directed by Gregg Smucker

The Course We Set

Music by Johanny Navarro
Libretto by Amy Tofte
Directed by Patricia Weinmann

Last Train

Music by Carlos Carrillo
Libretto by Enzo Silon Surin
Directed by Marshall Hughes

Crush

Music by Tony Solitro
Libretto by Joshua Brown
Directed by Greg Smucker

A Tall Order

Music by John Greer
Libretto by Sheri Wilner
Directed by Patricia Weinman

In the House of Serenity

Music by Beth Ratay
Libretto by Laura Fuentes
Directed by Patricia Weinmann

A Long Trip

Music by Jordan Kuspa
Libretto by Dan McGeehan
Directed by Gregg Smucker

Courthouse Bells

Music by Mary D. Watkins
Libretto by Anita Gonzalez
Directed by Marshall Hughes




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