Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Briscula the Magician—A Look at Facism and Bliss


On March 8, 2020, the Dresser attended a premier performance of Briscula the Magician by composer Frances Pollock and first-time librettist Robert Misbin. Bel Cantanti Opera under the artistic direction of Katerina Souvorova at the Randolph Rd Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, developed and produced this ambitious production. This production's stage manager is Jennifer Blades.

Some operagoers of the greater Washington, DC area may be familiar with Frances Pollock since she presented What Gets Kept, a 20-minute opera in the 2017 Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative. Work under development includes Stinney (which has won awards in workshop presentations) and Salt, a cross-disciplinary piece. Opera of Chicago and Seattle Opera co-premiered her children’s opera Earth to Kenzie. She is currently working on a doctorate in composition at Yale University.

Portions of the score may be characterized as accessibly atonal, while also including themes reminiscent of carnival music and waltz. Considerable stretches of recitative allow the stories of the various characters to unfold with elegance and clarity. In the beginning of the opera, the Dresser wondered about clusters of words that seemed squeezed into too few musical notes, but that did not persist. Overall, the music worked reasonably well for this complex libretto.

The libretto of this two-act opera is based loosely on Thomas Mann’s novella Mario und der Zauberrer (Mario and the Magician). Set in 1929 in a rundown seaside town east of Venice called Bibione Spiaggia, the libretto, as does the novella, deals with the rise of Facism. Shades of contemporary political discourse rear its head when characters in the public square of the town talk about making the town or country great again.


Central to this libretto is a young woman named Sylvestra (sung impressively by soprano Leah Brzyski). Sylvestra is the flower girl and all the young men seem to be in love with her, especially the café worker Claudio (tenor Michael Butler). Claudio who lines up with Mann’s Mario is hypnotized by Briscula (tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs) who is the stand in for Mann’s Magician Cipolia. In both stories, Claudio/Mario is humiliated by the so-called magic man. In Mann’s story, Mario kills the magician, but in Misbin’s story, Claudio attempts to attack Briscula, for mocking him about his unrequited love for Sylvestra and then for kissing Claudio on the lips. However, the town’s militants (called thugs in the cast list), dressed in black shirts, beat and kick Claudio, allowing Briscula to get away with shaming and humiliating Claudio and everyone this evil hypnotist has called on stage.




Puzzling was the unidentified female character who opens and closes the opera. Like Charles Dickens’ Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, she is an observer who sits and knits while events in the community unravel in an alarming way. The libretto summary tells us that this character is an “allegorical figure” who “is both observing and controlling the action.” Later, we see that she transforms to become Briscula and then, after he is attacked by Claudio, retreats back into the character of the mysterious knitter. Dr. Misbin’s artistic instincts are good in creating a play within a play, which has the potential to add a sophisticated richness. For someone who had an accomplished career at the Food and Drug Administration as a medical officer, one would not expect a flawless work. Perhaps his mysterious woman would work better if there were evidence that she was interacting and thereby visibly controlling the players on stage.

What is exciting about this production is that a small opera company that is community oriented, with some financial support for its entire season from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County and the Maryland State Arts Council, would give a young composer such a grand opportunity. Running  about one and ¾ hours long, the opera includes 13 singers, 6 actors, and 8 musicians (including Dr. Souvorova at the keyboard) as well as impressive props/set, costumes, and surtitles. Surtitles are an optional detail which speak to the care that went into this production. While there is a small amount of text in Italian, overall the work is in English. In theory, if the diction is good (and it was), most small opera companies might not offer surtitles.

Her cast of singers, a mix of newcomers and practiced performers, also speaks well of Dr. Souvorova and her stated goals, which include sending those studying music into the professional opera arena. In Brisula the Magician, everyone performs well and contributes to a theatric wholeness that delivers a thoughtful experience.

 In Camille-Yvette Welsch’s poem “The Ugliest Boy in Christendom Considers Bliss,” the reader enters the thoughts of an adolescent boy that might draw attention to the plight of Claudio who is pulled out of himself by the evil Briscula. Under Briscula’s spell, Claudio reveals his unreturned love for the flirtatious flower girl Sylvestra, who is Claudio’s “absent Eve.” Except Briscula makes Claudio kiss him and then snaps Claudio back into reality, such that Claudio moves from momentary bliss to feeling that he has just had a homosexual encounter. The Dresser cannot help but wonder if Thomas Mann, if not Robert Misbin, was addressing the consequences of political brainwashing.


THE UGLIEST BOY IN CHRISTENDOM CONSIDERS BLISS

If I were the first person in the new world,
symmetry would not equal beauty.

A face, split in half, should not
recast itself. That is a sign

of evil, doppelganger. In this new world,
I would be Adam, etymologist and poet.

One plus one would not equal two.

Nothing would be whole, no parts
would fit. All uneven pieces, we would tumble

lopsided, never knowing enough to miss
the perfect circle, the absent Eve.


   by Camille-Yvette Welsch
   from The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom

Briscula the Magician has two more performances March 14 and 15, 2020.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Folger Consort—Palestrina & Renaissance Women Composers


In a period of abject political rectitude given the negative outcome of the Senate’s vote on including witnesses and documents in the trial to remove an impeached United States president from office, the February 7, 2020 opportunity to hear “Palestrina’s Perfect Art and Music by Renaissance Women” as presented by the Folger Consort with Stile Antico, Tesserae Baroque, and Webb Wiggins at Washington National Cathedral was welcomed respite. While the Dresser did not find the concert as perfect as the program title hinted, there were many moments of exquisite beauty.

As is the custom with the Folger Consort represented by Robert Eisenstein (viola da gamba, violin and recorder) and Christopher Kendall (lute and theorbo), guest artists provided a large part of the texture and virtuosity of the program. Stile Antico, a 12-member vocal ensemble specializing in Early Music and based in London, provided the angelic sound craved when one enters the gothic-styled Washington National Cathedral. Their name meaning old style was coined during the seventeenth century to describe the style of Renaissance church composition represented by Palestrina’s music. Tesserae Baroque, a fluid group of performers specializing in music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and based in Los Angeles, provided four musicians playing such instruments as sackbut, cornetto, and recorder to enhance the range and complexity of the Folger Consort strings. Webb Wiggins, a well credentialed organist, added depth on the continuo in this overly large space.

Compositions by Palestrina opened and closed the first set of the program with short pieces by women (Raffaella Aleotti, Maddalena Casulana, Sulpitia Cesis, Leonora d’Este) and men (Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Merulo,  Giovanni Bassano, Lodovico Grossi da Viadana) composers of the Renaissance period. Two compositions by Palestrina—the lyrically beautiful but delicate and almost hard to hear “Regina coeli” opened the program while the robust “Stabat Mater” with all performers on stage closed the first set before intermission. Additionally, the first half of the program included Francesco Rognoni’s “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Pulchra es amica mea,” which was performed with organ and cornetto.

The second half of the program introduced three composers not heard earlier in the program. “Diminutions on Palestrina’s Vestiva I colli” by Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde, Canzon  à 4 instruments by Francesco Cavalli, and “Ave maris stella” by Claudio Monteverdi. “Diminutions on Vestiva I colli” performed with organ, viola da gamba, theorbo, and recorder was haunting in its beauty. This piece was prefaced by a performance of Palestrina’s original composition which was played by viola da gamba, theorbo, sackbuts, and cornettoes.

For the Dresser, the centerpiece of this concert was performance of three compositions by Leonora d’Este—“Veni sponsa Christi,” “O salutaris hostia,” and “Sicut lilium inter spinas.” Each was sung a cappella with five female singers who stood at varying distances behind the stage and inside the enclosed area known as the Great Choir, which produced a sound that was quieter and perhaps a bit muffled. The Dresser believes this staging was to simulate how the work of d’Este sounded as it was performed in her cloistered nunnery—nuns sang (and played instruments) for the public but the performers were behind a screen.

Other favorite compositions were the three compositions by Raffaella Aleotti—“Exaudi Deus orationem meam,” “Angelus ad pastores alit,” and “Sancta et immaculata virginitas.” The Dresser found herself breathing with relief as she listened to the Stile Antico voices singing. A bit troubling was the muddy sounding Gabrieli Cazone à 5 instruments which included Eisenstein on violin, an instrument that proved problematic for him earlier in the program when he lost his way in “Canzon Francese in risposta.”

Most of the texts that accompanied some of the music in this concert were either sacred (in the Catholic practice) or nature oriented. The Dresser nods to Nancy Allinson in her meditative poem “Souls within the Leaves,” which addresses the Hindu belief of reincarnation, a belief that seamlessly blends the sacred and the natural world.

SOULS WITHIN THE LEAVES

Parvita, my Indian neighbor and a Hindu, believes in reincarnation:
“Our souls will return after death. I am not afraid of dying. It is natural.”

Her own son, age 40, died of a heart attack. There was no warning.
He and his wife were watching a movie on a Friday night.

Parvita tells me: “He slumped in the chair as if he were sleeping.
But, he never woke up.”

Today, you and I walked through Montrose Park in Georgetown.
A warm October afternoon. Then we both smelled gas. It broke the spell.

That spell of living so much in the moment. I would call the gas company.
File a report. Try to help a neighborhood. I heeded the warning sign.

We watch on t.v. another hurricane hitting the Florida panhandle.
I grieve over the loss of trees in Tallahassee as if they are people.

Today is a good day for you and me.
Persimmons and acorns fall from the trees in the garden.

Whose souls live within the leaves that have fallen from those trees?

by Nancy Allinson
from What a Windstorm Teaches




Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

Thursday, January 30, 2020

No Blue Memories—The Gist of Manual Cinema


No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks by Chicago’s Manual Cinema is theater that combines poetry, shadow puppetry, acting, and original jazz. Commissioned by the Poetry Foundation of Chicago, the work premiered in November 2017. The Dresser had the privilege of seeing this extraordinary experience January 24, 2020 at the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland.



UNDERSTANDING WHAT WAS BEHIND THE SCREEN

Since 2010, Emmy Award-winning Manual Cinema, a performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company has been combining handmade shadow puppets, actors, cinematic techniques, innovative sound and music to create engaging stories. They use vintage overhead projectors (yes, those old machines used in the Twentieth century classroom to show students something such as a poem or a picture or a set of rules), multiple screens, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, multichannel sound design, and a live music ensemble. For those sitting closer to the stage, one sees not only what is projected on the screen but the whole beehive of workers who are setting up the imagery or acting for the cameras. It’s an evening’s lesson in theater and a philosophic breakdown of reality.


[Photo by Maren Celest: Co-Artistic Directors (left & clockwise): Julia Miller, Kyle Vegter, Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Ben Kauffman]

HOW THE PRE-TALK SET THE SCENE FOR THE GWENDOLYN BROOKS STORY

The Dresser also partook of the pre-show event which included a short lecture by scholar of Washington, DC literary history Kim Roberts and a series of poetry readings hosted by Dwayne B. More with area poets—Morgan Butler, Brandon Douglas, and Marjan Naderi. Roberts spoke about three Black women poets and writers with ties to Washington, DC—Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880-1966), May Miller Sullivan (1899-1995), and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). What these three artists had in common was that each was actively engaged in advancing the writing life of others. From 1921 to 1928 at her house on S Street NW in Washington, DC, Johnson hosted a weekly writers’ workshop known as the Saturday Nighters, which nurtured such writers as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, May Miller, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others, especially women of color. Influenced by attendance at the Saturday Nighters, May Miller went on to help establish the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as from 1960 to 1980 running her own writing salon for writers, such as Toni Morrison. In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African-American woman appointed as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, during which time she encouraged teenage, prison, and senior writers.

PUPPETRY THAT  ENTERTAINS, EDUCATES, INFLUENCES

As multi-media/multi-arts performances become more prevalent, No Blue Memories: The life of Gwendolyn Brooks written by Crescendo Literary (Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall) stands out as a memorial to an industrious and giving writer of consequence and as an accessible, engaging educational experience of high quality in keeping with the philosophy of the writer being celebrated. While puppet shows are often thought of in the Western World as children’s entertainment, puppetry goes back thousands of years as a method of reaching a general audience, sometimes for political purposes, educational approaches, and always entertainment.

Poetry is a hard sell to American audiences because most Americans haven’t been brought up reading, reciting, writing and therefore appreciating poetry. No Blue Memories ably addresses how Brooks, a seemingly ordinary person—just like the audience who comes to see this experience of theater—gets involved and deeply committed to writing poetry, making this puppet show a seamless educational event. Stories about poets tend to draw a literary crowd made primarily of women. It’s a type of bias that was not at all evident from the nearly sell-out crowd at Strathmore Music Center. If the subject elicited a particular political or racial leaning it was this—it was a general audience that seemed predominately Black in the orchestra where the Dresser was sitting. It goes without saying that puppet shows pitched for adults pique audience curiosity, raising this question: what’s the hidden message but never what do I need to know before I see this?  Audience expectation is oh, this will be fun. Yes, No Blue Memories was fun and thought-provoking.

The Dresser assumes that part of the audience draw was the music initially with cool jazz elements by sisters Jamila Woods and Ayanna Woods and as sung mesmerizingly by their sister Kamaria Woods. Cool jazz developed after World War II and is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tone as opposed to the complex bebop of that era. In an email interview completed January 29, Ayanna Woods wrote, “Jamila and I wanted to model the sound of No Blue Memories after the type of music Brooks would have heard growing up. In the beginning of the play, we drew from jazz standards. As the play goes on, we introduced elements of funk and hip-hop.” When asked about the source of the words, Ayanna answered, “The text is a combination of Brooks' words, Jamila's words inspired by the poetry, and Haki Madhubuti's words (from his poem Gwendolyn Brooks).” Hats off to the musicians handpicked by Ayanna and Jamila—Red/Kai Brown on drums, Ryan Nyther on a beautifully plaintive, sometimes muted trumpet, and Brooklynn (Brooke) Skye on base guitar. The Dresser was particularly interested in Skye who was exceptional and without a biography in the printed program. Ayanna offered, “Brooke Skye is an amazing 18-year-old bassist and guitarist who attended Chicago High School for the Arts. She plays with a wide range of Chicago bands in the jazz & hip-hop scenes, including Malcolm London… Chicago is full of incredible Black musicians, and we wanted our band to celebrate that.

The Dresser applauds the collective behind this theater creation for not shying away from racism and racial issues. When No Blue Memories introduces the fact that Brooks has won the Pulitzer Prize, two shadow puppets who are white women discuss that a “Negress” has won this prestigious prize and they go to her door to see who she is. Their mocking tone seems much like the uneducated, socially backward cartoon family of the Simpsons. What is remarkable about Gwendolyn Brooks is that she wrote poetry that appealed to the highly educated and she created work that spoke to teenagers who preferred the pool hall over school. This is a show for everyone and in keeping with who Gwendolyn Brooks was.


WE REAL COOL

THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

by Gwendolyn Brooks




Photo credit:Julia Miller except where noted otherwise. 
Photographer of Gwendolyn Brooks at typewriter unidentified.


The next performance of No Blue Memories will be February 22, 2020, at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Check the calendar on the Manual Cinema website at http://manualcinema.com/cal/

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Dulce et Decorum of Glory Denied


Glory Denied with words and music by Tom Cipullo based on the book by Tom Philpott is a thoroughly engaging 90-minute chamber opera that has been aired starting in workshop format since 2004 in New York City Opera’s VOX series. The Dresser saw, or should she say experienced, this work January 17 at Washington, DC’s Keegan Theatre in a new production with only four performances by UrbanArias under the able baton of Robert Wood and direction by Kristine McIntyre.

The Dresser says experienced because the emotional load is heavy. It’s a story about a soldier who spends nine years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while his wife, lacking any other information, believes he is dead and moves on. However,  the opera is also stressful because it goes back and forth quickly between past and present, is presented predominately in ensemble singing with only a few arias which ratchets up the intensity, and because the UrbanArias has employed exceptionally good singers whose voices are sometimes bigger than what the Keegan Theatre can handle, adding a vibration to the auditory overload.

The way Cipullo manages the rapid transitions from past to present is by using a cast of four where the soldier and his wife are represented by younger and older characters. The younger Thompson sung by tenor John Riesen is seen throughout the opera in bare feet and disheveled battle fatigues. The younger Alyce (Thompson) sung by soprano Cree Carrico is costumed in a pink dress with a hairbow and is very pregnant with their fourth child. She continuously  scurries around the stage in her heels without ever giving birth and seems to represent the ultimate teen-aged girly girl. The older Thompson sung by baritone Timothy Mix is at first is seen in formal military uniform and later his formalism is toned down by the removal of his jacket and substitution of a sweater. Because Mix is much taller and broader than Riesen, it was a little hard to see Mix as the older soldier until it dawned on the Dresser that the anchoring character was the older Thompson and the younger versions of himself and his wife were only how the current day Thompson pictured himself and his wife. Likewise the older Alyce sung by mezzo-soprano Caroline Worra who is dressed in pants and sweater is a much bigger woman than Carrico.

Exceptional moments in the opera were Riesen singing the lyrically heartbreaking Psalm 23 from his inhumanly cramped cell, Mix performing a tour-de-force survey of what had changed in America since he was last home, and Worra pouring forth with “He went through Hell, but so did I.” Several times Carrico sings the opening lines of a letter to her husband that begins “My darling.” The first notes of the music for these letters are languid and yearning and Carrico delivers these openings in a moving way that reminds the Dresser of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.





Scenically, the words of Alyce’s letters are often projected in lights on the stage floor. The lighting and projection design of Kathy Maxwell is exceptionally creative. She uses two opposing walls on either side of the stage to project scenes from Vietnam as well as home-based family snapshots and film footage.

In Joe Zealburg’s poem “Apocalyptic Drone,” the Dresser is reminded of what the older Thompson has come face to face with when he returns to civilian life and it clearly seems apocalyptic to him. Here is Thompson’s tirade:

I missed so much I can’t catch up, I can’t catch on.
Ev’ry single fact I knew or thought I knew, is diff’rent now.
Ev’ry thing has changed somehow.
John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, astronauts, moon shots.
Heiress robber Patty Hearst, soldiers coming home get cursed.
Fad diets, Chicago riots, Watts, Newark, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, My Lai,
Kids get high, Men can cry, Wives can lie.
Terrorists at the Munich Games,
Athletes now with Muslim names.
Credit cards, fast food, Music’s vulgar, movies lewd.
a nation become crude and callous,
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alyce!
Turn on. Tune in. Freak out! Welcome home!
Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Pentagon Papers, Kent State. Welcome home.
Leonard Berstein’s radical chic, Betty Friedan and her damn mystique. Welcome home.
Failure to communicate, college students demonstrate. Home!
Japanese cars, topless bars, Traitors pass for movie stars. Home!
Home to a regained life. Home to a stained wife. Home. There’ll be Hell to pay.
Home. Who remembers Veterans Day?
Turn on, Tune in, Drop out, Cop out, Right on, Sit-in, Love-in, Come on, Give in, Give out,
Put out, Put on, Right on, Hang-up, Uptight, Far out, Sell-out, Burn out, Freak out.
Welcome ---------home!

While Thompson’s complaints about how things have changed emphasize loose morals, it is pitched in technological advances like getting to the moon and use of credit cards. The you in “Apocalyptic Drone” is a soldier much like Thompson and is especially experienced in the fragment Dulce et decorum est which alludes to the quote from the Roman poet Horace Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning it is sweet and right to die for one’s country. Both the poem and text of Thompson’s tirade about how things have changed makes us ask the question what have I given up for my country and was it worth what has happened or will happen to me?


APOCALYPTIC DRONE

Of course you don’t want to die,
but the drone is coming today.
The drone that delivered your meals, Amen.
The one that pressure-washed your house,
walked your three poodles,
and trimmed your azaleas and sago palms.
The drone is coming today.
It delivered three call girls
and Viagra to your home last week.
By now you’ve received
those benzodiazepines to ease your fear of laserization.
It’s already towed away your driverless car.
Your lupus? Too costly to treat.
As you require dental implants to chew a good steak,
your work is done, your strength is weak.
Remember, you voted for this in 2019.
The drone is coming today.
Repeat the phrase, thy rod and they staff
These words shall bring solace your way.
The drone is soon to arrive. Amen.
Smile. Laugh. Profess your last prayer.
Relax. Rest. Dulce et decorum est.
The drone is coming today.


by Joe Zealberg
from Covalence

Photo credit: Nicholas Karlindr

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

WNO’s Skinny Operas


In the eight year of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, the three engaging twenty-minute operas premiered on January 10, 2020 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater all had an educational theme. All three also feature music that provides tonal access. Conductor Anne Manson did a seamless job in coordinating the musicians and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists who make up the singing casts. These are collaborating teams of composers and librettists worthy of being watched.


Woman of Letters by composer Liliya Ugay and librettist Sokunthary Svay depicts a father-daughter relationship that is on the verge of changing. As an immigrant, Sam, (sung by bass baritone Samuel J. Weiser) who works at a Manhattan university, constantly brings home books to his daughter Sonya (soprano Marlen Nahhas) to give her the advantage he didn’t have himself and to keep her busy and safe at home. She is an excellent student and loves these books. Consequently, she is accepted on full scholarship to a university in England. This upsets Sam who still hasn’t made peace with the death of his wife and mother of Sonya. Complicating this event is a visit by Sonya’s friend Dara (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) who extols the benefits of going away to study.

The opening music of Woman of Letters appropriately strikes a soundscape of Sonya’s yearning. Dara who is studying opera provides the giddy excitement of a teenage girl with her bel canto singing. While the Dresser liked this piece, she questions the wisdom of making Sam a bass baritone. His heavy voice tended to drag down the energy of the overall work in an exaggerated way.


Admissions by composer Michael Lanci and librettist Kim Davies addresses a real day scandal in the arena of college admissions. Mother (mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms) has paid off various people to get her daughter (soprano Marlen Nahhas) and son (tenor Matthew Pearce) into schools of their choice. As the opera opens, Father (bass baritone William Meinert) and Mother are driving home from court while their kids are discussing where their absent parents are.

The repartee in the libretto is cleverly written and ably delivered by this outstanding cast. Moreover the ensemble work  provides a wonderfully layered counterpoint of voices and concerns.


In the category of “school of hard knocks,” Night Trip, by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton, features two black WWII veterans—Uncle Wesley (baritone Joshua Conyers) and Uncle Mack (tenor Joshua Blue)—who arrive at the home of their sister in Chicago to pick up their niece teenage Conchetta (mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell) who is unschooled in the ways of the world. The uncles drive Conchitta to see her grandmother and aunts who live in a small town in Tennessee. Set in the summer of 1958, things turn very racist when they ask to use a gas station restroom in the south. They angrily leave the gas station without paying and are quickly overtaken by a police officer and the accusing gas station attendant. Conchetta is manhandled and in danger of more egregious assault so Uncle Wesley offers to pay off the two men with money being sent from Conchetta’s hard-working mother to her Tennessee family.

The music beginning with the overture is jazz inflected. Rehanna Thelwell infuses her role as an innocent, unworldly teen with joyful enthusiasm, making for a memorable evening of new operatic work.

To the Dresser, Truth Thomas’ poem “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” evokes the adage that the pen, an implement of learning and wisdom, is mightier than the sword. Thomas directs his message to “children of wooden bellies” (Thomas says wooden bellies refer to the holds of wooden ships that brought Africans as slaves to America and that his poem “attempts to encourage people of color to boldly esteem themselves…in a country that has taught…black folks to hate themselves”) and to “children of Cinque’s sword” (possibly old methods as summoned by a cinqueda which is a short sword of the Italian Renaissance that is five fingers wide). Written as a Skinny (eleven lines where lines one and eleven have the same words and in between the other lines feature one word with a prescribed repetition), this is a form invented by Truth Thomas. The Dresser finds this poem a perfect final word on WNO’s AOI festival of three new operas, all of which deal with issues of speaking truth and overcoming the obstacles of learning. Additionally, Thomas’ title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pen” suggests the James Brown song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Thomas demonstrates (as if he is standing on one foot), as do the collaborators of these new short operas, that a lot can be communicated in a short space of creative work in which many limitations are set.

PAPA’S GOT A BRAND NEW PEN

Speak truth on the good foot—say it loud
children
of
wooden
bellies,
children
of
Cinque’s
sword.
Children
speak truth on the good foot—say it loud.

by Truth Thomas




Photo credit: Scott Suchman

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Wistful Liveliness of The Dead


Coming late—January 2, 2020—to Scene Theatre's and Robert McNamara’s seamlessly lyrical production of TheDead, an award-winning musical by composer Shaun Davey with book by Richard Nelson based on James Joyce’s short story by the same title, the Dresser is grateful to have experienced this wistfully lively show with musical direction by Greg Watkins. Set at Christmas and during a Christmas party at that, it is the perfect winter holiday story. Everyone sings at this party, even the housemaid and the hired man who helps serve the dinner.
 

Everything about this production staged at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC pleased. Carl Gudenius’ set showing the audience three areas of a house—entrance hallway, grand living room with piano and window with an alcove bench, and dining room with a large formal table and chairs—included lots of eye-catching details like a handsome area rug in the living room. The costumes by Alisa Mandel offered realism and flair, particularly in the lovely lace worked into many of the women’s blouses and, of course, the Irish are known for their handmade lace.

What carried the show was the fluid music and dance performed by an able cast of thirteen.

The story at the heart of this musical involves a man named Gabriel Conroy, played by Louis LaVoie, who serves as the narrator, filling in what is not imparted by the musical numbers. He is very much in love with his wife Gretta, played by Danielle Davy, whom his doting and elderly spinster aunts—Aunt Julia Morkan (Andrea Hatfield) and Aunt Kate Morkan (Rosemary Regan) tend to discount, calling Gretta country cute. Nearly everyone at the party initiates a song. Gabriel and Gretta sing “Adieu to Ballyshannon,” a lilting tune in waltz tempo that the partygoers all love even though the couple has sung the same song in other years. Later, Gretta moved by Bartell D’Arcy (Leo Delgado), the special guest who is an opera singer, says she will sing a song that she is reminded of and which, she tells her husband who offers to help her sing it, he has never heard before. She strikes a far away look of radiance and sings in a mesmerizing delicate voice about a lost love of hers by the name of Michael Furey. Initially, Gabriel thinks she is singing about him, but later to his abject disappointment discovers not so. He is sadly angry that she has never told him about this man whom she then reveals died at the age of 17 hopelessly in love with her.

There is lots of fun choreography including a heel-clicking dance to the tune of "Three Jolly Pigeons" by a drunken young man named Freddy Malins (John Gerard Healy).


A subplot is the failed lives of the elderly aunts who live their whole lives through performing and teaching music. At the end of the party, Aunt Julia, dying, is visited by a younger apparition of herself, played by the intriguing looking Antonia Romm, who might have the face of medieval angel.

In Rocky Delaplaine’s poem “Watching Romeo and Juliet,” the narrator is reminded of a past romance with a man who is still the handsomest man she knows. Unlike Michael Furey, the handsome man of Delaplaine’s poem is still out there driving nails and building houses but the poet has chosen another man, her current husband, to build a family with. In James Joyce’s story, the reader never gets to know if Greta would have married Michael had he lived. Therefore, The Dead is a bittersweet story.

WATCHING ROMEO AND JULIET

Tall oaks frame a make-shift stage.
Families gather at River Bend Park
on a warm August night to picnic
and see their kids in a Shakespeare play.
A half-moon rises over the Potomac.
The platform—twelve sheets of plywood
propped on two-by-fours. Staring
at this pared-down set, I think of a man
I left long ago, a carpenter and homebuilder
by trade. Why did I leave, exactly?
At 60 he’s the handsomest man I know,
can still drive a nail through without
hitting the wood. The night I left him
he howled as though his leg were caught
in a steel trap. Never, I vowed, never again.
And who is this man next to me now,
our daughter edging up a few rows to sit
with friends? When the young lovers kiss
I envy their passion, but not their impatience.
At intermission the director reminds us,
If they marry, it’s a comedy, if they die,
it’s a tragedy. On the drive home,
our thirteen-year-old wonders out loud,
It’s both, isn’t it? Yes, I say, it’s both.

by Joanne Rocky Delaplaine
from The Local World


Next play by Scena is Ajax by Sophocles and directed by Robert McNamara from March 20 to April 19, 2020.

Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Erstwhile Blues of Thomas’ Hamlet


On November 24, 2019 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC, the Dresser attended Washington Concert Opera’s production of Ambroise Thomas’ three-hour opera Hamlet. WCO last presented this Hamlet in 1998. Since 2002, Anthony Walker has served as Artistic Director and Conductor of this robust musical group now in its 33rd season.

By robust, the Dresser means this—on stage for this production, there were 55 musicians, 40 chorus members, a cast of 9 (two who double) and one very active and enthusiastic conductor.

What stood out in this production for the Dresser was an exceptionally fine cast of singers. Soprano Lisette Oropesa as Ophelia rocked the house with her finely controlled coloratura numbers, especially Ophelia’s mad scene. South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo as Hamlet musically exhibited a range of nuanced emotions without the pyrotechnics Thomas awarded to Ophelia. The Dresser also thinks that Thomas inadvertently tipped a disproportionate amount of attention to Ophelia and that a director has to carefully choose the baritone playing Hamlet.

The Dresser who had never heard work by Ambroise Thomas pauses here to wonder why Thomas made the role of Hamlet a baritone and not a tenor. After all the ghost of his father played most ably by Brian Kontes is a bass baritone and Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Tom Fox)—brother to and murderer of the dead king—is also a baritone. Additionally, the more minor role of Polonius—father of Ophelia and Laertes—is bass baritone (sung by Timothy Bruno). The Dresser wonders if the composer was trying to make his opera as dark as possible by the high ratio of low tone singers—2 baritone and 3 bass singers.

Jonas Hacker as Laertes provides a satisfying performance, but his tenor role was minor. The Dresser loved the drunken grave diggers sung by tenor Matt Hill (also sung the role of Marcellus) and bass baritone Matthew Scollin (also sung the role of Horatio).

The only other female voice in this opera is Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti masterfully played that role. She has a powerful voice that she uses well and the ability to show with a glance or a gesture what her character is feeling.

Overall the experience of hearing this opera by Ambroise Thomas was good but the Dresser felt impatient with its many interludes. The musical interludes made the opera seem overly long despite the calming effect felt by the end of the opera. The Dresser also had to let go of comparing the libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier based on a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas and Paul Meurice to William Shakespeare’s major work of tragedy by the same name. Thomas’ opera cuts a lot out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, dulling the emotional trauma and psychological complexity.

The next Washington Concert Opera will be Verdi's Simon Boccanegra on April 5, 2020.

The Dresser chooses “Kind of Blue” by Reuben Jackson to have the final word in this review because the poem speaks to the knife-stabbing horror suggested by naming the fictional character Norman Bates out of the film Psycho. In the WCO production, the audience does not get to see even a knife among these tuxedo-wearing men not to mention that Hamlet is positioned far from Claudius. Jackson’s final stanza also summons in the Dresser’s mind Ophelia, who in the flower of her youth drowns herself leaving Hamlet alone with his broken heart and erstwhile blues, blues that started with the death of his father.

KIND OF BLUE

You feel bad
And you feel bad about
Feeling bad
And you feel bad
Because your erstwhile blues
Cause some to scatter
As if you forgot to wash
Or as a sagacious sister
Said in group therapy—
“People act like you going to get all Norman Bates on
        them and shit!”

And if you are like me
You blame yourself
The way you blamed yourself for falling in love
With things which further distance you from your peers,
         the planet

Then a rain-soaked rosebud appears
Or your broken heart holds hands with a cello
And there is no one to see you smile

by Reuben Jackson



Photo credit: Don Lassell