Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dido, Alberto Gonzales, and Timothy Nelson

American Opera Theater, one of the region's (and the nation's) most innovative opera companies, has done it again. Directed by Timothy Nelson, the company has put together a double bill of unlikely one-act operas: Melissa Dunphy's 2008 The Gonzales Contata and Henry Purcell's 1688 Dido and Aeneas. A strange pairing but it works, due largely to Nelson's choreographic direction.

Recently composed by Dunphy while an undergraduate at West Chester University, The Gonzales Contata is a political satire cobbled together from passages in the 2007 Senate hearings concerning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The satire is cartoonish, with senators playing hide-and-seek and throwing paper airplanes at each other. The male senators are played by females; the single female on the Judiciary Committee (Senator Feinstein of California) is played by a male (with brio by Brady Del Vecchio). Amidst the fun, there is a hilarious aria for Gonzalez ("I Cannot Recall") and an oddly moving hymn to America at the end, once the ambitious politician has fallen from power. The score drags at moments, deteriorating into the grade-B horror movie soundtrack that seems to be the lot of much contemporary music. But Nelson's mock-martial staging maintains the production's verve and soprano Molly Young turns the hapless Gonzales into an almost tragic figure.

The production of Dido+Aeneas is the evening's highlight. Nelson has transposed the tale from classical antiquity to the present. In front of a bare black table, a housewife struggles with a tottering marriage (to businessman Aeneas) and the psychological demons within her. The original witches, spirits, and messengers of the original libretto are transformed into forces lodged within the mind of the troubled woman. Behind a scrim, the darkened chorus embellishes the decline and suicide of the protagonist. Both vocally and dramatically, Emily Noel provides a riveting portrait of a tormented and abandoned woman. Unfortunately, the Aeneas (Jason Buckwalter) delivers a more pedestrian performance. The Purcell score only gains in pathos and purity in this radical transposition of the action.

As usual, Nelson has wisely chosen his supporting forces. Supporting soloists and expert choruses are provided by the Handel Choir of Baltimore and the Peabody Conservatory of Music. The Ignoti Dei Orchestra provides moving accompaniment for the Purcell, although the baroque ensemble struggles with the atonal lurches of Gonzales.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Of Grief and Magic

With its distinctive mission to favor the theatrical voice of women, the Strand Theater offers a solid production of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Based on her earlier memoir, the play explores Didion's grief during the improbable year in which she faces the sudden death of her husband and the prolonged medical crises leading to the death of her daughter.

The monologue is vintage Didion. Precise details of jewelry, clothing, medicines, corn fields, and airplane seats are recalled with a military severity. The pain of the year's grief is threaded with ironic comments on comparative river views and senses of time. This is very much the tiny affluent world of the literati who circle Didion and her author husband John Gregory Dunne. Not everyone is buried from the vaults of Manhattan's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Not everyone can dryly compare commissions for Life vs. Vogue. The author's bewilderment at the death of the family wanders through the brittle, name-dropping gossip of several blocks on the Upper East Side.

Dianne Hood provides an engaging performance of the one-woman monologue: not an easy task at a running length of 80 minutes without intermission. Hood's Didion is very much the grande dame: in regal control of all the lethal events, ready for a precise commentary on each odd twist, lucid about her inconsolable grief as she magically and impossibly tries to wish her husband and daughter back to life. As consistent as Hood's performance is, the emotional range seems limited. The irony, the control, and the literary wit of Didion are present, but the rage and the bewilderment at the losses seem subdued. A certain primness dominates.

Miriam Bazensky's direction permits Hood to move gracefully over the Strand's tiny stage. Every effort is made to avoid the stasis that so easily overcomes dramatic monologues. In recounting her adventures with grief, Hood occasionally moves into an effective soft mime.

One of the heroes of the evening is set designer Debbie Bennett. The sleek, stylized set of Didion's apartment projects the coolness, accomplishment, and (thanks to a prominent mirror) the self-absorption of Didion. Even in her most painful self-disclosures, the self-assurance and wry calculation of Didion remain the stronger.