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Monday, February 13, 2012

Opera Review: Blood, Breakfast and Broken Hearts

Opera Manhattan presents Women on the Verge.
Francois Poulenc's La voix humaine was featured at Opera Manhattan.
With the vast and diverse opera scene in New York City, one never knows what might be on the stage as Valentine's Day approaches. Sometimes it's romantic melodrama--the Met this year is offering Ernani. Others, it's darker works, including one memorable season with a Feb. 14 production of Wozzeck.

This year, the run-up to this Hallmark® holiday was marked by Women on the Verge, a bold production of three monodramas, offered by Opera Manhattan, a small, but brave company that does much of their work with a piano as the sole musical accompaniment. The production, offered in the penthouse space at Shetler Studios, may have been spare but the young vocal talent on display was rich indeed.

The performance led off with Sofia Dimitrova as Lady Macbeth. This was not Verdi or Horovitz, but rather a setting by contemporary American composer Thomas Pasatieri. Ms. Dimitrova evoked the steely strength of Shakespeare's murderous queen in this setting of five monologues from the Scottish play. Ms. Dimitrova (no relation) has a potent dramatic instrument, almost overwhelming in the little theater. She sang the crescendo leading up to the murder of Duncan with real power, and evoked the suffering and child-like state of madness required in the Sleep-walking Scene. 

Another Pasatieri work followed, his one-act opera Before Breakfast which was first heard at the City Opera in 1980. The original play was an experiment by Eugene O'Neill dating from 1916. (He wanted to see how long audiences would stand a single monologue.) O'Neill's play predates the 1924 premiere of Schoenberg's monodrama Erwartung, although the composer had written that opera in 1909. 

Before Breakfast  follows the morning routine of Mrs. Charlotte Rowland, a housewife (Jayne Skoog) who discovers that her shiftless, two-timing husband (an unemployed poet) has another lover who is about to have a baby. This is tough, two-fisted drama, where the singer is required to switch rapidly through a convoluted set of emotions as the evidence is discovered, reminisces are touched upon, and the little story boils to an unhappy climax.

Ms. Skoog made the most of this work's wide dynamic range, drawing the listeners into this little kitchen and the misery of a morning where the only relief comes from a little silver flask. This was a powerful, scenery-chewing performance which also was an effective display of a bright-toned instrument with ringing top notes.

The most familiar work on this program was François Poulenc's La voix humaine, a monodrama in the form of a telephone call. Written and premiered in 1959, the opera is based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau. It tells the story of a young woman who is breaking up with her lover in the course of a long, agonizing telephone call. (Cocteau's play reflects the notoriously dodgy phone service in Paris in the '30s.

Soprano Roza Tulyaganova gave a pointed, convincing portrait of this young woman's breakdown, from the desperate pleas to her lover to evocations of their tender past. The work is filled with stops and starts, staccato figures that indicate the ringing of the telephone. Like the two monodramas that preceded it, Poulenc's work requires a wide dynamic and dramatic range. It was an intense, intimate experience.

None of these works would have worked without the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Tristan Cano. He used his piano to create a wide range of effects, from the minor-key chords in Lady Macbeth's sleep-walk to the twisted waltzes that accompany sections of Before Breakfast. This bright young pianist was at his best in the Poulenc work, creating the composer's complex, yet lyric sound-world and occasionally interrupting the dream-like music with the harsh staccato as the phone rang and reconnected.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.