Frost Opera Theater provides enthusiastic advocacy for two absorbing new works
The University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater performed two contemporary one-act operas Thursday in an evening in which imagination, enthusiasm and hard work compensated for threadbare production budgets.
Unlike a performance of an opera in Italian or German, where it’s useful to become familiar with the opera in advance so you can concentrate on the music and stage action rather than the supertitles, these absorbing, highly theatrical works require no preparation. Written in English and sung with clear diction and attention to the meaning of the words, the operas were easy to follow and musically accessible on first hearing.
Like many contemporary operas, they place the words on a more equal footing with the music, never allowing — as many 19th century composers would —- the words to be buried under a carpet of vocal ornamentation. And the Frost singers and stage director responded, giving rounded performances with full attention to acting and character development.
Strawberry Fields, by the American composer Michael Torke and the playwright A. R. Gurney, tells the story of an elderly woman who imagines her bench by the John Lennon memorial in Central Park is a seat at the opera. As her son — officious in black suit and cell phone — attempts to bring her to a nursing home, she befriends a young Columbia student whom she imagines to be her husband seated next to her at the opera. She tells him about Verdi and he tells her about John Lennon.
It is a through-composed, dialogue-driven work with just a few musical set-pieces. Torke has been called a post-minimalist, and while his gentle, shimmering music has repetitive elements, it’s much faster paced than Philip Glass and actually seems to be going places rather than locked in endless repetition of small motifs.
Not all the voices had yet developed to a professional level, but there were several standouts. Maria Denison as the old lady brought a rich voice and subtle characterization to the role. Jennifer Tipton was a vocal standout as her daughter.
Ballymore, Part One: Winners was the more traditionally operatic of the two works, with arias and duets and a greater role for the sweet-toned, elegiac music. The American composer Richard Wargo wrote the music and libretto, based on a play by the Northern Irish playwright Brian Friel. The opera tells the story of Joe and Mag, two 17-year-olds engaged to be married, as they climb a hill above a Northern Irish town. The audience gradually becomes aware that something terrible will happen that day, with details emerging as the opera progresses. And this awareness of the young couple’s fate gives their talk of the future, their spats and their playfulness a poignant, ghostly, dreamlike quality.
A standout in the role of Mag was the soprano Anna Hersey, a vivacious, compelling and vocally impressive stage presence. Jillian Staffiera, as one of two “ballad singers” who tell the story of Joe and Mag, brought a rich, well-focused voice to the role.
The production was done in collaboration with the University of Miami School of Architecture, with production design by the painter and theatrical designer Laurie Olinder of the Ridge Theater. For Strawberry Fields, the staging consisted of a row of benches with a shifting projected backdrop of New York City streetscapes. For Ballymore, it was even simpler, with a ramp serving as the hill that the couple climbed, with projected backdrops of a town, trees and a lake. Although simple, these were effective set designs that brought out the essence of each work without leaving the audience feeling dissatisfied.
Alan Johnson, artistic director of the Frost Opera Theater, conducted the orchestra in a sensitive, technically competent and clearly well-rehearsed performance, providing solid support to the singers. The two one-act operas will be repeated through Sunday at Gusman Concert Hall with alternating casts, and they’re definitely worth checking out.
The Frost Opera Theater presents Strawberry Fields and Ballymore, Part 1: Winners 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Call 305-284-4886.
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Fri Apr 16, 2010
at 12:59 pm