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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.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Opera Review: Dinner and Two Shows

On Site Opera stages a gala benefit at The Harmonie Club.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Not the marrying kin: Leah Partridge as Miss Havisham at On Site Opera.
Photo by David Andrako for On Site Opera.
The Harmonie Club stands on E. 60th St. just steps from Central Park. Its staid exterior protected by a blue awning and an antique revolving door, surmounted by a polite plaque reading "Members Only." Founded in 1852 by German Jews who were blackballed from the nearby Metropolitan Club, it is New York's second oldest continually operating gentleman's club, a throwback to a New York that now mostly exists in the imagination of writers.

On Thursday and Friday night, the Club was the latest location chosen by Eric Einhorn's On Site Opera company, an organization dedicated to performing small, exclusive operas in equally exclusive locales around New York. Additionally, Thursday night's performance was On Site's first benefit dinner, with three courses served, alternating with monodramas by Hector Berlioz and Dominick Argento.

Following cocktails, the guests were seated in the long, narrow second-floor dining room. A fireplace glowed at each end, with the orchestra (including the members of the SYBARITE5 string quintet under the baton of company music director Geoffrey McDonald appearing in a central alcove just off the main ballroom. The chandeliers shone, the salad course appeared and finally, the first performance started.

This was Hector Berlioz' La Mort de Cléopatre, a cantata written in the French composer's third unsuccessful attempt to win the coveted Prix de Rome. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert Levitt appeared in traditional Egyptian regalia, moving and weaving among the tables like a particularly agile waitress. At the work's climax, she produced an actual, live small green snake, which may have made more of an impression on the assembly than the Berlioz did.

Following an entrée of dry chicken breast (served with one bone of the wing joint sticking out), haricort vert and a bit of potato, it was time for the evening's main course. This was Miss Havisham's Wedding Night, a challenging one-act setting of passages inspired by the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations and its antagonist, a neurotic, claustrophobic and very wealthy woman who spends her days shut up in her vast Kentish estate of Satis House where all the clocks are stopped at 9:20am.

Soprano Leah Partridge entered in the trademark tattered wedding dress, her eyes staring wide and haunted. A singer of flexibility and power, she carried the difficult vocal line on her shoulders, ramping up through difficult interval leaps and at one point breaking down in hysterical screams. This is not easy stuff for singer or audience, and the violent climax of the piece created the uncomfortable reminder that one was trapped in a social club room with a madwoman while waiting for the dessert course.

There was no production of reptilian livestock in Miss Havisham and director Eric Einhorn refrained from including the spiders that inhabit Satis House in Dickens' book. What did appear at the work's denouement was Ms. Levitt, still in costume as Cleopatra but sans serpent. Unfazed by this apparition, Miss Havisham invited the Egyptiian queen for tea as the opera ended, followed smoothly by Prosecco, dessert and coffee for the assembled. 

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats