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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Opera Review: Poe-Faced

The American Modern Ensemble premieres a pair of chamber operas.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The composer and his title character.
Original photo of Stewart Copeland © 2015 by Shayne Gray. 
The spirit of artistic invention was in full flower on Saturday night, as American Modern Ensemble premiered its production of a pair of chamber operas at Dixon Place, the engaging bar and cabaret that hides a robust subterranean performance space on Chrystie Street. The operas were The Whole Truth by AME artistic director Robert Paterson and a new orchestration of The Cask of Amontillado by rock star turned composer Stewart Copeland.

The idea of writing operas for a small ensemble and just a few singers dates back to the first operas created as amusements for rich families at Carnival time in Italy. It remains an important frontier of experimentation and invention, often performed with minimal stage budgets that force directors and set designers to be bold and creative. With spare, often minimal orchestration and sometimes cramped quarters, the chamber opera represents the cutting edge.

Mr. Paterson's work went first, featuring soprano Meredith Lustig and mezzo Blythe Gaissert playing two sides of a woman named Megan. "Megan A"(Ms. Lustig) is the woman's public face, a compulsive liar hopping beds with two lovers while placating her husband and confessing falsehoods to various therapists. "Megan B" (Ms. Gaissert) was her inner conscience, telling the truths that A refused to utter. All five men in her life were played by baritone Christopher Herbert. He showed a kaleidoscope of different vocal colors as he switched between five different roles.

The opera made good use of the separate and combined  voices of Ms. Lustig and Ms. Gaissert, who sang together only when the two sides of Megan's mind reached agreement. In the most amusing scene, Mr. Herbert played a laconic cowpoke-turned-carpenter who was bemused to find himself in bed with both Megans at once, and quietly fled the scene when they turned on him. Veteran Mark Campbell's libretto had a sharp pen, its sense of suburban crisis reminding one of existential 20th century stage dramas like Trouble in Tahiti.

Stewart Copeland rose to fame as the founder, drummer and occasional songwriter of rock band The Police, and then continued his career as a composer of film and television scores. In the 1990s, Mr. Copeland has branched into opera, following a surprise commission from former Cleveland Opera chief David Bamberger. The Cask of Amontillado is their second collaboration, dating from 1994 but presented here in a revised and updated orchestration that was written specifically for the forces available to American Music Ensemble's players. This story, first published in 1846, needs little introduction, being Edgar Allen Poe's famous tale of subterranean revenge and premature immurement.

Mr. Bamberger's libretto follows the Poe story closely. It is the story of Montresor (Mr. Herbert) a proud Venetian nobleman who has decided to use the lure of Amontillado (a rare Spanish sherry) to bring his good-living friend Fortunato (Robert Frankenberry) to his early grave. The score used repeated leitmotivs, ostinatos, dissonances and percussion (including writing for full drum kit and crawling cocktail piano) to increase the atmosphere of gloom, dread and finally terror. What's really scary are the occasional pop chord progressions and flourishes, memories of sanity and sunlight in this story of obsession, murder and decay.

Although he was reduced to playing only one character in this show, Mr. Herbert proved his strength as a dramatic baritone. He was at turns eerily calm and raving as the murderous Montresor, whose motivations are made very clear in Mr. Bamberger's careful use of exposition. By way of contrast, Mr. Frankenberry went from blithe innocent to tippling drunk to murder victim. The opera built to a terrifying climax, as the early songs of friendship came back changed into a flesh-crawling minor key, and bleak interjections of chords and tone clusters emphasized Fortunato's grim fate. In pace requesciat!

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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.