The Astronaut’s Tale
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In Review > North America

The Astronaut’s Tale

Encompass New Opera Theatre

NANCY RHODES, Artistic Director of Encompass New Opera Theatre, claimed it was coincidence that the New York premiere of Charles Fussell’s The Astronaut’s Tale at BAM Fisher fell on January 28, 2016, the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion. Regardless, it was eerie watching a chamber opera about space exploration on that date, especially since (spoiler alert) the opera’s climax is the explosion of the titular astronaut’s first mission after a lifetime yearning for the stars. Encompass deserves credit for its commitment to musically and thematically adventurous new work. Unfortunately, while The Astronaut’s Tale is interesting for its novelty, it plays more like a musicalized documentary than a compelling piece of drama. 

Librettist Jack Larson, who died in September 2015, was inspired by Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale to create a seventy-five minute highlights reel of the life of Abel, a farm boy who dreams of exploring the cosmos. His creationist girlfriend, Ann, provides a foil for scientific argument, while a knowledgeable peddler named Peccavit reappears at random intervals to give Abel a graphing calculator and some encouragement. In The Soldier’s Tale, there are no sung roles, only a narrator, and Larson’s inclusion of a narrator is the opera’s most problematic element. His principal function is to tell the audience what the characters are going to do before they do it and describe what they’re thinking before they express it. Larson’s reliance on this device drains the story of emotional immediacy and reduces the characters to the sum of their actions.

Fussell’s score also falls short of capturing the range of human passions that fuel scientific enquiry. It does have some powerful moments, most notably Ann’s letter to Abel admitting the failure of her marriage, sung here with penetrating humility by soprano Lianne Gennaco. But the couple’s argument pitting faith against science remains cerebral, avoiding the personal conflict that should give it weight. They intone their rote credos on repeated notes with no sense that their love is at risk of being sacrificed on the altar of belief. The melodies are often at odds with one another and with the undulating orchestration, but the singers were impressively accurate and sang with clear, unforced diction. Eapen Leubner brought a light, focused tenor and fresh-faced optimism to Abel. Frank Basile’s stentorian bass lent authority to Peccavit, but he had understandable difficulty conveying the dense topical text. Gennaco gave the standout performance as Ann, her bright, flexible soprano skating over Fussell’s punishing tessitura without fading in color or size. Narrator Christopher Vettel did his best to inform his interruptions with a point of view and lent a firm baritone to the closing quartet. Lianne Arnold’s panoramic projections and set designer Stephen H. Carmody’s shifting firmament captured the lure of outer space more acutely than anything that was sung or spoken. It wasn’t clear why Angela Huff costumed the high school-aged Ann like a five-year-old, but her other contributions were on point. Conductor Nicholas DeMaison drew shifting, vibrant colors from the accomplished orchestra and was sensitive to the singers. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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