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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Opera Preview: The Tempest Songbook

The Gotham Chamber Opera rehearses up a storm.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Director Luca Veggeti (back to camera) gives direction to
 Jennifer Zetlan (left) and bass-baritone Thomas Richards as dancers look on. 
Photo by the author. 
It is a freezing cold day in New York City, on the tail end of a bitter winter. Bright sunshine streams through the arched windows of the rehearsal space, on the top floor of an old loft building in the extreme west of Greenwich Village. Outside, drills whine and bite into brick. Inside are rehearsals for the world premiere (on March 27) of The Tempest Songbook, the third and final production of Gotham Chamber Opera's 2014-15 season.

In case you haven't heard of them, Gotham Chamber Opera is a surging force in the New York opera community, a group that knows how to keep their productions modest in scope and always makes interesting choices in material. Their run under founder and artistic director Neal Goren includes stagings of Cavalli's Eliogabalo in a burlesque house, the hot-house Daniel Catán opera La hija di Rappaccini on the Cherry Esplanade of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and perhaps most memorably Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna ("The World On The Moon") under the dome at the Hayden Planetarium.

For today's rehearsal, the company's home is the rehearsal space for the Martha Graham Dance Company, which is working with Gotham on its first collaborative production. The Tempest Songbook is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and features music by two composers: British baroque master Henry Purcell and the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The performances on March 27-29 are planned for the Rodgers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bass-baritone Thomas Richards steps atop a bench, one of two pieces of stage furnishing being moved on and off the vast rehearsal space. Even in polo shirt and slacks he cuts an imposing figure, with his bald head and resonant, warm voice. As he sings, his voice digs into the famous text:

"The island is full of voices, sounds and sweet airs that delight the ears and hurt not."

As he sings, dancers move in a constant, seemingly fluid state. One rolls onto their shoulders, head in the air. Their quick, flowing movements of legs and arms look like capoeira, grceful and almost superhuman. The impression of martial arts is heightend by the dancer's taut ponytail, olive drab utilities and high-ankled black boots. One leg is aloft in a scorpion kick, the boot coming almost over her head.

At the center of the dancers and singers, giving directions is Luca Veggetti. He directs the movements and gestures with the same precision and fluid style that he brought to last year's production of Toshio Hosokawa's The Raven. This new production is his brainchild, fusing the works of Purcell and Saariaho in a work that literally bridges the centuries.

He is surrounded by dancers, some in black veils suggesting Prospero's nature-spirits. Another singer, Jennifer Zetlan leans forward on the floor, delving deep into the role of Miranda. Ms. Zetlan is a veteran of Gotham shows, including Nico Muhly's searing opera Dark Sisters. Above her, Mr. Veggetti directs the movement and gesture, creating an organic flow of bodies that owes something to martial artistry from at least two different continents. It is unearthly and beautiful. They stop. The singers are repositioned. The dancers continue to move.

The rehearsal switches between the two, with the harpischord accompanist changing styles from song to song. Mr. Richards sings "See the heavens smile,"  his rich baritone drowning out the sound of the drills outside. The fthe famous text rises against the harpsichord's accompaniment. The Saariaho pieces are very different, resurgent and chromatic, bright colors against the stark chiaroscuro of the Purcell. The harpsichordist, with one ear on a portable device and one eye on Mr. Goren, works hard through the demanding chords and arpeggios.

Mr. Richards climbs back on his bench and prepares to sing another Purcell aria. The dancers do their movements, sliding across the floor. The drills go on.
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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.