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In Review > North America

Dog Days

FORT WORTH
Fort Worth Opera Festival
4/26/15

In Review Fort Worth Dog Days hdl 715
Bobick and Kelly in Dog Days at Fort Worth Opera
Photo courtesy Peak Performances at Monclair State Univ./Beth Morrison Projects

Here’s a formula for a gripping piece of musical theater: start with the end of the civilized world, and proceed from there; center the story on an increasingly desperate, dysfunctional family whose teenage daughter has adopted a dog, or what seems to be a man disguised as a dog, as her little friend; build to a climax involving starvation, murder and mayhem; and set the libretto to a score for chamber orchestra with plenty of electronic effects. Composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek created Dog Days according to this plan in 2012. Based on a short story by Judy Budnitz, it is not exactly family-friendly entertainment.

But for two hours at Fort Worth’s Scott Theater on April 26, the three-act work held the attention of a basically conservative audience and, at the end, left them dazed. The multifaceted score — part tonal, part dissonant — was never less than riveting, its sound encompassing Broadway (Leonard Bernstein and Marc Blitzstein are clear influences), anthem-like hymns, piercing pop rhythms and jagged harmonies. Alan Pierson led the ensemble NEWSPEAK with gusto and delicacy. Robert Woodruff handled stage direction, with major assistance from Jim Findlay (scenic and video design), Christopher Kuhl (lighting) and especially Eamonn Farrell (video engineer), who managed the compelling video projections at the rear of the stage that complemented both dramatic and musical activity.

The six singers, all from the original cast at New Jersey’s Montclair State University, were hampered in several ways by the invidious amplification of body mics. In a small house the amplification was unnecessary, except perhaps at the rare moments when the score was fortissimo. And it had the unfortunate result of distorting rather than merely enlarging the voices, and also of muddying much of the singers’ diction. They too often sounded metallic and artificial rather than natural. (One often wished for supertitles.)

The opera has many hallmarks of a chamber piece. It unfolds as a series of solos, duets and ensembles, and each family member gets to shine. Especially winning were the two women — Marnie Breckenridge, as the mother, and Lauren Worsham, as her daughter, Lisa. In Act III, the mother has what amounts to a mad scene, recalling her twenty years with her husband and ending up lying prone on the dining-room table. Breckenridge has a commanding voice with a splendid high register.

In her coming-of-age solo number, “Hello there, beautiful,” Lisa looks at herself in a mirror. She admires her developing body with understandably eager narcissism. Worsham sang with an ever-expanding coloratura richness.

As her older teenage brothers, Elliott and Pat, Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits shared a testosterone-inspired duet, smoking a joint, looking at girlie magazines and fantasizing about refilling the world in syncopated, jagged, rhyming lines (“mate,” “repudiate,” “repopulate,” “copulate”). Cherry Duke, a plummy mezzo, took the smaller role of the Captain, the officer who invades the family’s home and issues stern warnings. James Bobick (the father, Howard) commanded the stage with a virile baritonal presence and gradually came unhinged as hunger, deprivation and madness descended upon him. In the silent role of Prince, the man-dog, John Kelly moved, and crawled around the stage, with appropriate canine gestures.

The last eleven minutes of the opera build to an almost unbearable climax, as a gradually increasing electronic buzz becomes a roar, the musical instruments begin to wail, and Lisa climbs onto the table beside her now-dead mother, whose body she lovingly washes as the noise intensifies and a light behind the house brightens. She is the only one to make her way out of the madness, leaving the house and heading to a probably non-existent future in a wasteland without hope. spacer 

WILLARD SPIEGELMAN

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