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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Opera Review: But You Can Never Leave

PROTOTYPE Festival presents The Last Hotel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She's ready to check out: Claudia Boyle (center) flanked by Katherine Manley (left)
and Robin Adams (right) in The Last Hotel. Photo by Teddy Wolff © 2016 PROTOTYPE Festival.
The PROTOTYPE Festival, an annual celebration of the avant-garde in opera and modern music crossed the East River on Friday night, with the New York premiere of The Last Hotel. This is a new work, a collaboration between Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy and librettist/stage director Enda Walsh. Set in a grim seaside hotel on the coast of Ireland in contemporary times, it is part exploration of life, death and uncomfortable triangular relationships. The work was presented in the newly refurbished St. Ann's Warehouse, a former tobacco storage that is now gorgeous arts space under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.




The story concerns a Husband and Wife on holiday are recruited to assist a mysterious Woman with her decision to commit suicide. The actors worked on a grim black square, transformed with lighting tricks and sound effects into key locations like the hotel elevator and the ship that carries the Husband and the Wife to and from their deadly rendezvous. The set is the sort of grim, muddled pretense popular with opera designers these days, fillled with ready-made props, much-abused chairs and the sort of wrack that one might find piled in the deep corridors and abandoned sub-basements of the most disreputable convention hotels.

Indeed, the concept of the hotel seemed to overwhelm the story told here, letting one wonder if this was a straight thriller or a psychological horror like The Shining or 1408. The libretto opened with spoken dialogue between the main characters with lines repeated obsessively and questions taking on new meanings after being re-stated two or three times. The set-up is this: a mysterious Woman (soprano Claudia Boyle) introduces herself to the Husband (Robin Adams) and his Wife (Katherine Manley). He is an old acquaintance of hers, and it turns out that they are there specifically to help the Woman with her suicide, a messy business involving a pressurized tank, a hose and a plastic bag.

This grim hostelry is presided over by a Porter (Mikel Murfi) who serves the drama as a silent plot device, acting as stage manager janitor, instigator and occasional comic relief. But once the set-up is in place, Ms. Walsh's drama turns blurry and muddled, with the characters taking endless elevator rides, going through a dry run of the Woman's death and even participatig in a karaoke contest. The focus of this ugly little triangle shifts between the three characters, with the Wife, initially passive, proving to be a strong and tolerant figure.

Ms. Boyle brings an impressive and agile instrument to this music, although her tone is compressed and strangely neutral throughout the show.  This unearthly sound may be delibarate, a hint that we are after all watching a ghost story. The ambitious, maddening libretto keeps its secrets, even as the power dynamic in play continually shifts. Mr. Adams plays the Husband as a garrulous sort, his friendly demeanor toward the Woman dovetailing neatly with his dismissive, diffident treatment of the Wife. He becomes more of a jerk as the opera spirals toward its denouement.

As Mr. Adams spouts a stream of reminescence at Ms. Boyle, his Wife is revealed to be a solitary, shaken shell of a woman. In fact, the Wife suffers from sea-sickness in the first half of the show. In fact, she relates the crossing to the hotel did her in: she forced her husband to remain with her, confined to their car in the bowels of the tight coastal ferry. Eventually, she bonds with the Woman in a long and sisterly duet, much to the husband's chagrin. His rage comes out in a karaoke contest in the latter half of the show. The climactic death of the Woman (to a cacaphony of sound) takes place behin the heavy black stage curtain. Afterwards, the couple are back on their boat heading to the mainland and the Porter is left behind to clean up the mess.

Mr Dennehey sets these strange events against a score that shifts gears between a chugging minimalist pulse and passages of discordant tone clusters, the changes in mood reflect g the turbulent emotions of the three main characters. The later part of the score takes an ill-advised turn in to rock, electronics, torch songs and shades of hip-hop, cumin at g an impromptu karaoke contest. Apparently that's what tourists do in lonely Irish hotels when accompanied by suicidal blondes.

The orchestra was amplified, a sensible choice as the score includes accordion and electric guitar, instruments with the capability to drown out the softer members of the ensemble. The musicians were positioned to right of the hous, but an effective sound mix compensated for  the awkward seating. Under the baton of Andre de Riddler, the ten-piece ensemble played Mr. Dennehy's score with enthusiasm. In a hotel where some if not all of the guests are out to kill themselves, at least they counted among the living.

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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.