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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Opera Review: Slaughter on 12th Avenue

On Site Opera presents Blue Monday at The Cotton Club.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Before the bullets fly: Joe (Chase Taylor) and Vi (Alyson Cambridge) canoodle in the Cotton Club.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2013 On Site Opera.
The current incarnation of Harlem's fabled Cotton Club may be an echo of the establishment's heyday, when Duke Ellington led the orchestra and Fletcher Henderson reigned supreme. But on Monday night, Eric Einhorn's young opera company On Site Opera made the Harlem venue culturally relevant again with a production of Blue Monday, the 1922 one-act jazz opera by one George Gershwin.

Blue Monday is a forgotten Gershwin work, which closed after just one night in its initial Broadway run. The score finds the young composer mixing jazz rhythms with Italian opera vocals, accompanying a violent libretto (by Buddy DeSylva) that steals gleefully from the verismo operas of Leoncavallo and Puccini. The music is rich and satisfying, with hints of gospel in the tenor's lament and ideas that would flower fully in the composer's masterpiece Porgy & Bess.

No good composer is afraid of borrowing a melody, and Gershwin uses a recognizable quote from  Tosca more than once. And the libretto owes much to Pagliacci, although here the female lead Vi (played by Alyson Cambridge) who goes mad gunning down her lover Joe in a fit of jealous rage. The supporting characters even echo the Leoncavallo opera, with nightclub owner Sam providing a prologue addressed directly to the audience, and lounge lizard Tom the role of the interloping Tonio.

The show was mounted on the dance floor of the club, right in front of the bandstand. Dancers whirled and moved, their elegant accoutrements echoing the Harlem of the Jazz Age. Singers made use of the venue's hidden staircases and staff exits, appearing as if by magic behind the bandstand. Musical accompaniment was divided between the Cotton Club All-Stars (a full jazz orchestra) and the Harlem Chamber Players, a string quartet. The Cotton Club band also played an hour-long warm-up set, blowing jazz standards with some impressive and thoroughly soulful musicianship.

The singers dove right in, ignoring the packed-in audience and presenting the story as a window into the after-hours operations of a questionable establishment. As the drama mounted, one forgot that an opera was going on, completing the meld of illusion and reality so essential to effective verismo. With no proscenium, stage or orchestra pit, Mr. Einhorn's direction drew the audience in. A dramatic screw tightened and finally snapped in the opera's shocking, violent conclusion.

This was an impressive array of vocal talent, with singers drawn from OSO's creative partners, the Harlem Opera Theater. Ms. Cambridge proved a capable leading lady with a sensual stage presence and rich soprano voice. As Joe, the romantic gambler who meets his fate, Chase Taylor had a cool sexuality and a sweet-toned voice that melded beautifully with Ms. Cambridge. Lawrence Craig was appropriately sleazy as the lecherous Tom--his attempted sexual assault on Vi provided the work's scariest moment. Fine supporting work from basses Clayton Matthews (as Mike, the club owner) and Alvin Crawford (as Sam, his helper) makes one wish that this short one-act show lasted a little longer.

But maybe not. The power of Blue Monday lies not just in Gershwin's melodies (which are memorable) but in the concise, efficient story-telling that involves the listener only to shock them with dramatic turns and twists. This is a quick, thrilling ride in a time machine, and effective use of a performance space to create atmosphere and mood. This is just the second production for On Site Opera, and another excellent argument for freeing opera from the constraints of the auditorium.

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