OPERA NEWS - ALT Alumni: Composers and Librettists in Concert
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ALT Alumni: Composers and Librettists in Concert

National Sawdust

ON FEBRUARY 7, Brooklyn audiences got a sneak preview at National Sawdust of three selections from the long-awaited opera Breaking the Waves, subsequently announced as the opener of Opera Philadelphia’s 2016–17 season. Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek were both present, and both espoused their admiration for the disturbing source film, by Lars von Trier. The first excerpt, “Golden Heart,” was a lyrical showcase, sung strongly and with feeling by mezzo Eve Gigliotti, this concert’s MVP; she was as convincing as a young Isle of Skye widow as she would later be as a Jewish grandmother—and any part in between. (She appeared in four of the five works.) Soprano Sarah Joy Miller sang “Map of Jan’s Body,” an ominously jagged, pillow-talky love song, with doe-eyed vulnerability. And baritone Michael Weyandt dramatically performed his dynamic and frequently bombastic aria to his wife, God and the ocean, “A Lover’s Grave.” 

The matinee, which featured excerpts from four operas and a complete performance of a one-act—which stole the show—was a followup to another in November [http://www.operanews.com/Opera_News_Magazine/2016/2/Reviews/NEW_YORK_CITY__ALT_Alumni.html], both featuring a preponderance of alumni from American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program, a unique initiative that ushers opera creators through the process of writing for music theater. (ALT is particularly proud of its librettist component, which it calls the only such program in the country. All five of the afternoon’s librettists were from the CLDP; only two of its composers were.) Its graduates are responsible for much of the new American opera being heard in houses across the country—though not usually in New York, which is what made both of these concerts so valuable for city-bound fans of inventive new work that pushes the art form forward.

For example, the show started with pieces from “The Poe Project,” a pair of one-acts inspired by Edgar Allan short stories; the double-bill was first heard in 2014, at Fargo Moorehead Opera, and will be heard this spring, in Fort Worth. Its creators imagined what Poe would write if he were alive today—updating his works to the age of Black Mirror. What I saw of the second one did a better job of that than the first. “Embedded,” by composer Patrick Soluri and librettist Deborah Brevoort, is “The Cask of Amontillado” set in the world of broadcast news, about both the cultural anxiety caused by terrorism but also, Brevoort said, about the anxiety caused by “cultural terrorism” against women, “especially of a certain age.”

The first excerpt was for an aging producer, a rueful and moving aria about older women who’re forced to “look young”; soprano Caroline Worra sounded brokenhearted singing over a descending bassline that seemed to mirror her character’s career options—steadily going down. In her duet with the terrorist Montresor, “I, who know so well, the nature of your soul…,” she was pathetically flattered by his compliments, so much it was touching. Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson sang the character with villainous fun, which he also applied to the Gravedigger in “Buried Alive,” by composer Jeff Myers and librettist Quincy Long, based on the Poe story “Premature Burial.” (“I took the idea, and none of the story,” Long said about writing the story of a man who wakes up in a morgue and is told he’s dead.) Albertson sung, cleanly and capably, his robust opening aria, “Lo, ’tis a somber night…,”  which went right into “Cold, so cold,” an intriguingly dark-sounding scene with a dramatic performance to match by Weyandt, and a complementary comically morbid turn from Gigliotti.

The Property, a plotty klezmer opera by composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischman, had its debut last year as part of Lyric Unlimited, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s alternative-programming arm. It’s a mystery, based on a graphic novel, envisioned as a companion piece to Weinberg’s The Passenger. It featured bouncy, carnivalesque music you could imagine being played on a zither, and featured some funny back-and-forth sung dialogue in the duet “The Hotel Krol,” with Gigliotti as a grandmother and Miller as her granddaughter. But there was also something hurt and haunted underneath, and it turned musically and emotionally darker, especially in the quartet “The Fotoplastikon,” in which Albertson and Weyandt joined the women in sharply feeling the music’s progression of emotions. 

But the afternoon’s highlight was Daughters of the Bloody Duke, performed in its (relatively brief) entirety. Its librettist, David Johnston, described it as “yet another scathing indictment of man’s inhumanity to man,” but he was deadpanning—it’s the rare modern opera comedy, a little campy, winking, silly and smart. Essentially, Johnston said, it places the story of the Danïades on the set of a Vincent Price movie. It’s goofily macabre in both story and music (by Jake Runestad). 

Miller, an exceptional straightwoman, starred as one of forty daughters who, like the rest of her sisters, is set to marry one of a neighbor’s forty sons—except the girls’ father harbors a longstanding grudge against the sons’ father, and has ordered them to kill their new husbands on this group-wedding night. Unlike her sisters, Miller’s character is conflicted; as her husband (the charming and straightforward tenor Glenn Steven Allen) sleeps, the castle echoes with the screams of murdered men; Worra, as one gleefully inebriated murderess, stole her scenes. Gigliotti stopped the show as a cackling ghost in three-quarter time, and the climax was a beautiful love duet for husband and wife. It went rather quickly, but it was great fun—and a reminder of how diverse today’s new voices in opera are, and how rarely we get to hear them within the five boroughs. —Henry Stewart

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