Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Warrior's Return—Ulysses Versus American Vietnam Vets






The Return of Ulysses—Song of My Father, a Drama through Music by Claudio Monteverdi combines the mythological story of Ulysses coming home from the Trojan War to his faithful wife Penelope with the contemporary and nonspecific tale of damaged American men coming home from Vietnam to unappreciative civilians. Running May 11 through 27, 2024 this creatively updated opera is produced by InSeries under the artistic direction of  Timothy Nelson. On May 12, 2024, the Dresser experienced this  two-and-half-hour production at Washington, DC’s Source Theater.


To achieve the contemporary ambiance of the Vietnam War, song elements (mostly recognized as text) from such songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Phil Ochs were woven through Monteverdi’s Baroque music. Dancers sometimes appearing as four-legged scrabbling “sculptures” (a term used by choreographer Jitti Chompee) with balloon heads provided an abstract and nightmarish landscape to the main character who was both Ulysses and a homeless vet sleeping in the street. Poetry of the contemporary writer Ocean Vuong (offspring of a Vietnamese mother and American soldier), is featured in this production, including  his poem “Telemachus” in the voice of the grownup son of  Ulysses who meets his father for the first time:


Telemachus [excerpt]

   By Ocean Vuong


Like any good son, I pull my father out

of the water, drag him by his hair


through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase. Because the city

beyond the shore is no longer

where we left it. Because the bombed


cathedral is now a cathedral

of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far

I might sink. Do you know who I am,

Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer

is the bullet hole in his back, brimming

with seawater. He is so still I think


he could be anyone’s father, found

the way a green bottle might appear at

a boy's feet containing a year

he has never touched…



While the Dresser greatly admires the writings of Ocean Vuong and sees the relevance of including his work, the question remains as to whether his work could be heard and appreciated in the context of this production.



What the Dresser liked best about this production was Monteverdi’s music played by INnovãtiõ Baroque Orchestra (they use period instruments like harpsichord, viola da gamba, and theorbo) under the baton of Timothy Nelson, the performances of the singers especially the bass baritone Kevin Short, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon (as Penelope), tenor Oliver Mercer, male soprano Elijah McCormack (as Telemaco), tenor Derek Chester (as Ulysses), and the oddly costumed ballooned headed dancers and their antics. Singers,  except the named characters, play multiple roles from Penelope’s suitors to the off-stage voices of the colorfully costumed gods portrayed by the dancers. Sometimes the singers sang off-stage behind the crowded orchestra pit, causing a level of unnecessary confusion.


The program was divided into two parts. Part I was too long and hard to follow. Part II was shorter and stayed focused on the mythological story of Ulysses’ return. The video projections on multiple screens added nothing to the Dresser’s understanding of the storyline. Staging was minimal and included what looked like a vintage dinette set of table and chairs from the 1950’s.


May 31 through June 2, 2024, this production moves to Baltimore Theatre Project.



Photos by Bayou Elom



Saturday, May 4, 2024

Opera Lafayette’s Merriment of the Comedic Muse

Some opera productions, like the total eclipse of the sun seen recently in the United States, happen so quickly that the operagoer must be primed in advance and have the absolute foresight to buy tickets. Les Fêtes de Thalie by composer Jean-Joseph Mouret and librettist Joseph de La Font in a spectacular modern premier by Opera Lafayette as conducted by Christophe Rousset and directed by Catherine Turocy thoroughly captivated the Dresser when she experienced the opening night performance May 3, 2024, at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The production continues in DC on May 4th and then moves to New York’s El Museo del Barrio for a final performance May 7.



Everything about this opera ballet pleased the Dresser. The Baroque music was at times vigorous, saucy, and sweet to the ear. The singers are extraordinary talents both for their abilities to perform the demands of Mouret’s compositions, to create characters that enchant the audience, and to play multiple roles. The eight dancers were remarkable for their muscular strength, grace, and often surprising flourishes that included foot stamping. Kudos to the creative team that balanced these remarkable talents to achieve a satisfying whole.


The costumes by Marie Anne Chiment flowered into bloom like an exotic garden, particularly eye-catching were those worn by the foot stamping Kalanidhi dancers. The punkish attire, including a rainbow of hair color and black, laced-up storm trooper boots, worn by Thalie, Muse of Comedy, provided loud counterpoint to the flowing purple gown worn regally by Melpomène, the Muse of Tragedy.











The story opens and closes on an argument between sassy Thalie (soprano Paulina Francisco) and melodramatic diva Melpomène (dramatic soprano Angel Azzara) concerning what an audience will like better: tragedy or comedy. Apollo (bass-baritone Jonathan Woody) is asked to settle the dispute and resolves that the two Graces take turns starting with a comedy.


The first offering entitled “La Fille” (The Girl) involves a sea captain (baritone Jean Bernard Cerin) who wants to marry the young woman Léonore (Paulina Francisco). But Léonore wants to be free to sing and dance. The sea captain hopes her mother (tenor Patrick Kilbride) will help him win the daughter’s hand. The catch is for ten years, the mother has not seen her husband and so, when Léonore refuses, the mother offers herself. This is made funnier by the mother being acted by a  man with a rotund belly and, yes, Kilbride did a great job in this female role.
















“La Veuve Coquette” (The Coquettish Widow) involves Isabel, a woman (soprano Pascale Beaudin) who is pursued by two seemingly desirable men—the wealthy financier Chrisogon (John Taylor Ward and the military man Léandre (Scott Brunscheen). Isabel, dressed in riding gear which possibly suggests she is a Dominatrix, sloughs off the advice of her friend Doris (Angel Azzara) who encourages picking one or other. The rich man woos her with an elaborate dance which she is eager to see but, in the end, she tells both suitors no. The centerpiece of this tragedy is the dance.




“La Femme” (The Wife) is a comedy about Dorante (Scott Brunscheen), a man  who woos a masked woman though he has a beautiful and sexually appealing wife (Pascale Beaudin). Unmasked, the woman turns out to be Dorante’s wife Caliste which is taken cheerfully in stride by the married couple. At this time, Thalie, the muse of comedy, breaks into the scene as the audience claps and declares herself the winner—that comedy wins over tragedy according to the audience’s appreciation.


The final scene entitled “La Critique” (The Criticism) pits Thalie as librettist against Polyhymnia, the muse of Music and therefore the composer, and Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance and therefore the choreographer. She calls for mediation by Apollo, who sends a substitute. While Thalie may have won over the audience to comedy (versus tragedy), she must contend with the judgement of Momus, God of Mockery and otherwise known as the critic. With an extra kick of comedic irony Patrick Kilbride gleefully takes that role and knocks down her pride by saying he was glad he didn’t write the libretti for her comedies. However, this scene is not a tragedy, Momus assures all the muses that everyone deserves appreciation and that all should “laugh, sing, and dance” which is exactly how the Dresser felt leaving this well-orchestrated and fun-filled performance.



Photos: Jennifer Packard