Despite inspired moments, social media opera proves a mixed melange

By Lawrence Budmen

Charles Norman Mason’s opera “Entanglements” was performed Thursday night by Frost Opera Theater.

The University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater has presented a series of adventurous productions over the past several seasons, ranging from operatic pastiches with modernist sets to revisionist versions of works by Benjamin Britten.

On Thursday night the company offered the premiere of Entanglements, a cutting-edge work by Frost School of Music faculty member Charles Norman Mason. Not an opera in the traditional sense, Entanglements consists of twenty scenes, many presented simultaneously in the spacious galleries of the Lowe Art Museum on the UM campus. The audience is encouraged to wander between the galleries to observe snippets of the events, the musical equivalent of sound bites.

Four major characters who do not interact with each other dominate the piece. There are three trios of Facebook bloggers who discuss subjects and events peripheral to the protagonists. A sampling of ten scenes suggested Mason’s piece is less opera than avant garde music theater, a series of vignettes about the protagonists rather than a cohesive story. Mason’s score ranges over a wide stylistic panoply. Some scenes are compelling, others tend to succumb to monotonous note spinning. And should high art aspire to the short attention span of the television clicker?

Each principal is given a soliloquy. The monologue of Janice, who suffers from epilepsy, brings some of Mason’s most striking writing. Accompanied by the multi-colored sounds of the marimba, Janice’s solo takes flight in romantic vocal lines. A powerful statement of her condition and the problems it imposes on her life, this large-scale aria could well be a separate concert piece. The radiant soprano Rebecca Henriques soared in the high-flying aria over Manuel Leuenberger’s rhythmically varied mallet percussion, the singer bringing strength and pathos to a thinly sketched portrait.

Two scenes between Akala, an artist, and her Christian fundamentalist father seem to come from different musical worlds. Rippling piano figurations in the manner of Phillip Glass appealingly support a discussion of art and faith, the vocal writing lyrical and skillfully conceived. During a sequence in which the two watch a television interview of Sulla, a dictator whose cause Akala has supported, the numbing recitative over rumbling synthesizer could not be rescued by the finely pointed vocalism of Alissa Roca and Eric McConnell.

Sulla’s speech, seen on video, brings an old fashioned operatic solo of Wagnerian span with spiced up harmonies.

Sulla’s rage and public relations savvy were superbly balanced by Carl Dupont, his splendid bass-baritone vigorous in declamation. A lilting, almost waltz like television interview with Marcus, a soap opera star, spotlighted two of Frost Opera’s vocal standouts. Katherine Wiggins’ warm mezzo and Justin Moniz’s suave lyric tenor made the most of this light weight cameo.

A conversation between Janice and the Priestess, Sulla’s wife, veered between a mushy Hollywood soundtrack and minimalism. Mary Claire Curran as Janice (the role double cast) revealed a voluminous soprano, easily conquering the high tessitura, and brought some needed tension with the stoical Raquel Rubi. Curran and Rubi also excelled in a flowing blogger discussion of art with a vocally depleted Jared Peroune. Klezmer clarinet provided a zesty backdrop to a debate about Assad. Brian Schatz was the impressive clarinetist in several sustained opportunities.

Frost Opera Theater director Alan Johnson seemed to be everywhere, playing agile keyboard parts and conducting wind and synthesizer ensembles with energy and precision. The Lowe galleries present a problematical venue. There was a distinct echo in some rooms and sounds of scenes being performed in adjacent galleries sometimes filtered in, adding an unexpected layer to Mason’s random opus.

The search for new approaches to opera and music theater in the twenty-first century is an important creative challenge. Mason’s attempt does not entirely succeed but some of the score suggests a real talent for vocal writing, perhaps in more traditional operatic forms. Johnson and his hard-working singers deserve great credit for their dedication to this experiment.

Frost Opera Theater repeats Entanglements 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday at the University of Miami Lowe Art Museum.

Posted in Performances

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Fri Apr 19, 2013
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