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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Opera Review: God Strikes Back

Chelsea Opera premieres The Mark of Cain.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
God (Tom McNichols) marks Cain (Brace Negron) in The Mark of Cain.
Photo by Robert J. Saferstein © 2012 Chelsea Opera.
In a city that has forced itself to overcome long odds in the wake of recent events, the game Chelsea Opera company opened its season this week in St. Peters' Church on W. 20th St. Considering that their entire neighborhood was without power for most of last week, this opera company should be noted for its doggedness. Some singers even had to pedal all the way home from Brooklyn after performing rehearsals without heat.

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing opera based on the Bible. In the plus column, there's a lot of unmined stories, because of the Catholic Church's longstanding prohibition on putting religious stories on the stage. The minus: a certain sameness of voice. Musical clichés that include: dissonant, crashing chords for acts of great evil, a slinky, minor-key "Asiatic" mode for woodwinds, chiming triangles and divided violins for the twin concepts of goodness and redemption.

All of these musical clichés are present in Matthew Harris's The Mark of Cain, the one-hour one act opera presented this weekend by Chelsea Opera. Happily, an interesting libretto by Terry Quinn found new depths in the familiar story of Cain and Abel, and a strong cast of young singers did much to overcome the score's musical conventions.


The singers were led by Blythe Gaissert as Zellah, the sister of the Biblical brothers who, in Mr. Quinn's version of events, is secretly in love with Cain. Disguising herself as the late Abel, Zellah comes to visit Cain (baritone Brace Negron) who has become a ruler in the years following the murder. A veteran of the Metropolitan Opera's recent productions of Die Walküre, Ms. Gaissert brought a certain Wagnerian grandeur to the part, from her potent, laser-like denunciations of Cain in the aftermath of his death at her hands.

Mr. Negron brought a menacing presence and a sturdy bass-baritone to the role of Cain, underpinning the work's distinctly Straussian leitmotifs (an ascending six-note scale on the words "I have done nothing wrong") with potent, firm tone. Strong contributions were made by Kate Oberjat as the Serpent (her danced entrance was another Strauss moment) and Tom McNichols as the stentorian Voice of God. Mention should also be made of character tenor Jonathan Kline as Moradesh, an interesting comic character who vanished from the second half of the opera.

Mr. Harris' opera was preceded by a far more powerful work: Benjamin Britten's Canticle II depicting the near-sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham. The boy treble Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg (last seen in the Opera Moderne's recent staging of The Turn of the Screw) remains an impressive young artist. (He's also grown a few inches since last spring.) Tenor Eapen Leubner brought rich characterization to the role of the tormented Abraham.
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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.