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Slaying the Dragon
Center City Opera Theater
Founded in 1999, Philadelphia's Center City Opera Theater contributes to the city's musical life by hosting nearly every season a regional or even world premiere — sometimes both. The brand new work given at Prince Music Theatre was Michael Ching'sSlaying the Dragon, setting a libretto by Ellen Frankel that is based on real-life incidents chronicled in Kathryn Watterson's book Not by the Sword. June 9 was the second of five performances, with the final three slated for nearby AVA with some roles differently cast. The subject (the effect of hate speech and acts on a racially changing "Middle America" and how to respond) is serious and most timely. One wishes the opera had been successful, but — from the early children's chorus (at least half again too long), its musical forms and verbal content proved so repetitive that any pacing seeped out. Opera Delaware's Leland Kimball was a good choice to direct a work depicting a community but despite some good choices for the performers he seemed ultimately unable to imbue Dragon with urgency or reality. The events presented are all too credible, but their operatic portrayal was not.
General and artistic director Andrew Kurtz kept order in the pit, and all the musicians were up to their tasks.The score called in predictable ways for much percussion; Ching's writing for duo pianos, harp and flute proved more original. Still, this was one of those too-frequent occasions on which, in a "new" score, one saluted the procession of old masters as they went by, with passages closely recalling Puccini, Janáček, Gershwin — an arioso by the African–American preacher evoked Porgy in inappropriate-seeming ways — Britten, Copland and Bernstein. (To Ching's credit, we were spared the rewritten Rosenkavalier trio that seem to be de rigeur in conservative, "eclectic" American scores since Vanessa's fine quintet.) Some of the music is skillful, and a few pretty ensemble numbers won applause: Ching's prosody and vocal writing suit them better than his setting of conversational passages, which proved both plentiful and inert, often resolving in spoken interjections. This potentially powerful material would have worked better as a fast-paced play with sparing incidental music.
Chris Lorge, his words infallibly clear, dominated the cast as KKK Grand Dragon Jerry Krieg, his penetrating "pocket dramatic tenor" tiring only at the end of a high-lying marathon part. Jason Switzer's rangy, buzzy bass-baritone and large presence suited Rabbi Nathan Goodman, who helps the dying Krieg change his life. Several artists — soprano Theresa Eickel (Vera, the rebbetzen), bass-baritone Roland Burks (Rev. Lincoln Masterson), baritone Paul Corujo (Bud Connor, a sinister talk-radio host) — offered credible dramatic work and nice singing at low volume but turned strained when high or loud. Jody Kidwell brought strong contralto-ish sound and dramatic authority and nuance to Esther Zikorn, a Holocaust survivor. Jennifer Braun, also notable for verbal clarity, showed a fine soprano as the Rev. Ava Gray. There were many fine voices in the chorus, including the five children, but ensemble was not always pristine. Sarah Beckham, who sounded good in the brief Klan "soccer mom" role of Tammy, pulled out some fun trick high notes in the (nominally) audience-participation "11 o'clock" gospel number, sung in Hebrew — a confounding scene that bespoke creative desperation and weakened the impact of the anthemic if somewhat ambiguous final communal prayer. With considerable judicious trimming of repetitive and/or facile material, Ching and Frankel's manifestly well-intentioned opera could find a place as an outreach vehicle for community opera groups.
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