OPERA NEWS - I Am Harvey Milk & I Am Anne Hutchinson
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I Am Harvey Milk & I Am Anne Hutchinson 

Music Center at Strathmore

I AM HARVEY MILK , Andrew Lippa's stirring oratorio about the slain gay rights activist, has enjoyed a good deal of exposure on its own since 2013. It now has a companion piece, also with words and music by Broadway veteran Lippa, this one focusing on another daring soul in American history who challenged the establishment. I Am Anne Hutchinson, tracing the struggles of a feminist active centuries before anyone could imagine such a term, was premiered as part of a double bill with the Milk work—this pair of one-hour pieces was grandly described as a "concept opera"—on April 23 at the Music Center at Strathmore in suburban Washington. 

An immigrant from Lincolnshire, Hutchinson (1591—1643) dared to preach and to challenge some of the prevailing Puritan beliefs in colonial Massachusetts, rousing the animosity of the male religious leaders. She was excommunicated and sent packing in 1638, eventually ending up, after the death of her husband, in the Dutch colony that would become New York State. There, Hutchinson and six of her children lost their lives in an attack by a tribe of Native Americans. 

Lippa found in Hutchinson's assertion of identity and freedom a connection to Milk's experiences. He also found an effective way to bring the two stories together, musically and dramatically. I Am Harvey Milk was created not only as a vehicle for Lippa's considerable talents as a singing-actor, but also those of his friend Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the supporting role of an unnamed woman in that work. With I Am Anne Hutchinson, Lippa has fashioned a star vehicle for Chenoweth's abundant talents, while giving himself the supporting role of the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, John Winthrop. Each piece also has a substantial part for a child actor, to play one of Hutchinson's sons and Milk as a boy (the poised Colin Wheeler filled those roles notably here). August Eriksmoen's colorful orchestrations also help unify the two scores.

Imaginatively directed by Noah Himmelstein and considerable enhanced by expert choreography (Larry Keigwin) and lighting (David Lander), the Strathmore presentation generated musical and theatrical sparks. Even with the National Philharmonic onstage, authoritatively conducted by Joel Fram, there was plenty of room for the action to unfold. If the Hutchinson piece proved less compelling overall than the one honoring Milk, it still revealed Lippa's flair for melodic invention and structural cohesiveness. His style is very much in the Broadway/Hollywood musical world, but with sophisticated touches that give it distinction. The quiet opening descending motive, a mix of calm and worry, sets the stage neatly for the conflict. If that conflict gets a bit thick on the theology at times—one of the songs is titled "Antinomian Controversy"—the focus on Hutchinson's stoic stand as a woman "only guilty of speaking my mind" keeps the piece on track. Chenoweth sang superbly, using her laser-beam soprano with keen expressive subtlety; her solemn exit through the theater at the end hit the spot. Lippa, too, did shining vocal and dramatic work. A sixteen-man, dark-suited ensemble of vocalists handled its part of the score and tightly synchronized, Il Divo-like paces with great finesse.

Heard on the same bill as I Am Harvey Milk, the new piece could not help but be put somewhat in the shadows. That masterful earlier oratorio is quite the grabber, right from the opening, Puccini-inflected number when a young Milk's enthusiasm for opera is shattered by anti-gay slurs. With such highlights as the infectious, disco-driven "Friday Night in the Castro" and the healing, genuinely show-stopping "San Francisco" (Lippa defies the odds by crafting a great anthem for a city already well-celebrated in song), the oratorio makes for compelling music-theater. Lippa inhabited the title role with shattering intensity. Chenoweth again impressed with her impeccable diction and beautifully shaded phrasing.  The 100-plus men of the Alexandria Harmonizers, who occupied the balcony above the stage, filled the hall with a tender, cohesive tonal blend, the finishing touch on a memorable evening.  —Tim Smith 

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