Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Omni Trio Cycles

An Die Musik is one of Baltimore's hidden artistic jewels.  Quietly hovering above Charles Street, the second-floor recital hall looks more like a salon out of the court of Louis XV.  Each patron gets his or her nicely rounded armchair.  The elegant stage supports a chaste piano and a small number of chamber musicians.  The back wall features a gently arched sounding bell to amplify the music.

On Sunday night, the Omni Trio presented a superb rectial of art songs by Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten.  Composed of mezzo-soprano Loralee Songer, soprano Danya Katok, and pianist Dylan Perez, the new formation specializes in the performance of contemporary vocal compositions.  In reviving some of the more obscure works of Poulenc and Britten, they did not disappoint.

The highlight of the evening were song cycles by the two composers.  With a powerful soprano voice and admirably clear diction, Katok delivered a textured interpretation of Poulenc's cycle of poems by Louise Lalanne (the psudonymn for Apollinaire).  The mood shifted from melancholy to determination to puzzlement as the soprano followed the cycle's temporal shift from the past to the present.  Songer provided a touching interpretation of Britten's cycle Ballad Songs.  She delivered the witty "Tell me the truth about love" with ebullience.  The sad, ballad-like "Johnny" expressed the mealncholy of the love lost and abandoned.  While powerful, the mezzo-soprano's voice clearly has some problems of control at the top of her vocal range.

Perez provided ardent and competent musical accompaniment throughout the progam as well as offering some brief, informal introductions to these poorly-known works.

One reservation: In several of the song cycles, the singers attempted to turn the songs into dramatic vignettes.  At one point, a scarf mysteriously appeared, then sunglasses; shortly afterward, the sunglasses disappeared, then the scarf unraveled.  The attempted drama stuck this listener as precious, an unnecessary distraction from works which carry their own aesthetic punch through the unusual literary quality of the texts as well as the varied musical genres woven into their scores.


Saturday, February 8, 2014


The Peabody Chamber Opera is offering an intriguing double bill of contemporary one-act operas at Theatre Project this weekend.  Directed by Jennifer Blades, Thomas Pasatieri's Before Breakfast (1980) and Amy Beth Kirsten's Ophelia Forever (2005) work in quite different musical modes, but in their study of psychological anguish in a woman destroyed by an indifferent man, they bear uncanny similarities.

Based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, Before Breakfast studies the emotional meltdown of an alcoholic woman in the early morning hours.  As she roams through her 1920s apartment, she recounts the tale of a diastrous love affair which has led her to the bottle and despair.  The social background of the decade---especially the unwillingness of her paramour and his coterie to accept someone from a different economic and ethnic class---suffuses the romantic collapse.  The accessible Pucciniesque score permits the heroine Charlotte (Vanessa Rosa) to express post-traumatic feelings which cascade from disbelief to anger to grief for her lost child to rage at social prejudice and to final collapse.  Blades's direction permits the emotional arc of the melodrama to unfold smoothly with growing intensity as Charlotte's hopes and rationalizations crash.  Rosa provides a solid musical interpretation of the role with a rich, vibrant, modulated voice matching the emotional arc, but her acting skills await further maturation.

More cerebral in construction, Ophelia Forever studies Ophelia from different pyschological angles.  The one Ophelia of Shakespeare is now split into Violated Saint (Nicole Cascione), Mad Mermaid (Lisa Perry), and Faithful Seductress (Elizabeth Kerstein).  The stark, color-coded costumes visually separate the chaste Ophelia, the sprightly Ophelia, and the tempting Ophelia.  The Wagnerian singing by the three principals clearly expresses the emotional palette specific to each one.  The frequent, tightly harmonized trios are one of the evening's highlights.  Blades's careful ensemble direction of the piece gives it a steely choreography.  One haunting touch is the occasional appearance of a silent, sepulchral Hamlet (Nicholas Dogas) attracting the Ophelias to their watery grave but providing no reason, no explanation, no solace.  The conceptual brio and psychological symmetries of this serialist score represent one of its limits; its construction can be admired but there is little emotional interest generated in the synchronized water-ballet demise of our subdivided heroine.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Soaring with SONAR

Sonar, Baltimore's musical ensemble devoted to the performance of contemporary music, treated the city to a mystical concert the past week at Theatre Project.  Entitled "Dark Visions,"  the program offered three contemporary works rivaling each other  in their etheral atmosphere and avant-garde sound.

Opening the concert was the string quartet "Ainsi la Nuit" (1976), written by the French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013).  Broken into seven apparently unrelated movements, the composition hauntingly interwove sounds that characterize the dream and the cloud.  The movement titles indicate the vaguely religious mood of this nocturnal piece: "litanies," "constellations," "temps suspendu."  The Sonar string quartet masterfully evoked the impressionist mood of the work, with its distant echoes of Debussy, although at times the squeaks weakened the composition's lyrical undertow.

The second piece was the world premiere of "By the Light of the Stars" by local composer Lonnie Hevia (b. 1970).  This stirring piece was a blend of contrasts.  The opening movement evoked the cold, distant spectacle of the stars while the closing movement turned suddenly jazz-like as the brass and winds of the Sonar ensemble agressively intensified the sound, rhythm, and tempo of the music.  The piano and xylophone performances made an especially strong contribution to the rousing finale.

The revelation of the evening was the performance of Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947)'s odd one-woman operatic drama, "Infinito Nero" (1988), which the composer himself labels an ecstacy in one act.  Guest conductor Robert Baker expertly conducted the Sonar ensemble in this difficult work, full of sudden stops and eruptions.  Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen gave a mesmerizing dramatic and musical account of the strange mystic, Saint Mary Magadelen de Pazzi (1566-1607), on whose obscure religious effusions the monodrama is based.  A controversial visionary, De Pazzi would periodically explode into torrents of ungrammatical words expressing her experience of religious ecstacy.  The following phrase was a typical result: "The Spirit was transforming into blood, understanding nothing but blood, seeing nothing but blood, tasting nothing but blood, feeling nothing but blood, thinking nothing but blood, unable to think anything but blood."  Sciarrino accurately describes his subject: "She did not speak---words actually shot out of her like a machine gun."  His composition begins with a pointlillist movement of semi-sounds, breaths, isolated notes, and semi-words.  The body itself, with its respiration, its sighs, and its semi-retracted phrases seems to give utterance.  The work then builds to a cacophony of words, instrumental counterpoint, and an explosion of passion by Ihnen as her ecstatic embrace of and by a crucified God reaches its apex.

One minor reservation.  The performance of each of the compositions was accompanied by a video in the background.  The video work was colorful and certainly attuned to the particular mood of each piece.  Nonetheless, it tended to distract from rather than enchance the performance.  The austere purity of these ethereal pieces stands on its own. 


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Elusive Eno, Brilliant Carrot

Opening its new and spacious theater in the Remington neighborhood---quickly turning from declasse to genteel---Single Carrot starts on a perfect note with Will Eno's The Flu Season, a postmodern play with enough epigramms, poetic flights, fables, confusing conflicts, and menacing blackouts to test any troupe.  Master of the off-balance meditation, the Carrots tackle this elusive piece with aplomb.

A splendid cast brings this dream-like, fractured tale of romance and death to poetic life.  Apparently patients in a mental asylum, Man (Paul Diem) and Jessica Garrett (Woman) wander through incoherent therapy sessions, monologues, and dialogues as they slowly awaken to interest in each other, then fall into a romance punctuated by absurdist one-liners ("I wanted to marry someone who I could bring to my dream house and then divorce "), which slides into a harrowing abortion (daintily described as "the procedure," complete with flowers and heart-shaped box of chocolates thrown in to ease the pain), and then ultimately slides into the suicide of the aborted mother, who no longer sees the point of the pain.

A punctilious pair of Doctor (Michael Scloni) and Nurse (Genevieve de Mahy) frame the suffering inmates with both humor and menace.  As the therapy sessions advance, both doctor and nurse suppress the narratives of the patients and insist on hogging the time to tell their own tales of romantic woe and metaphysical confusion.  Their own odd, rather eldercare romance breaks out to fill the loneliness between their skating outings, their outings to the mountains for a group photo op, and their disappointed walks to catch the perfect sunset---or is it the dawn?

An in-your-face and right-in-the-audience's-lap duo of Prologue (Dustin C.T. Morris) and Epilogue (Allyson Hurely) urges the audience to interpret the action differently.  A preppy exhibitionist in his stockbroker suit and ready to wave a flag at any instant, Prologue provides an upbeat, romantic, loquacious interpretation of the rising and cresting romances.  Epilogue in overalls has washed one dish too many and seen one too many romances where the same mendacious words("I love you forever," "You're the only one," "Wait for the dawn,") have been repeated over and over.  In her cynical view, these efforts at love just happen like the weather.  There is no final cause.  Prologue's valentine-laced hope is lethal illusion.

The play's most intriguing characters, Prologue and Epilogue provide the play with its metaphysical bookends.  Why is the effort at love so doomed to betrayal and death?  Why is communication of the soul so difficult?  Why is our rhetoric of love and of therapeutic revelation so often a stereotyped script, a jumbled mosaic of slogans and stock phrases, rather than an honest expression of persnal truth? 

Prologue and Epilogue are also the guardians of the play as meta-drama.  The confusion of the action is the failure of the playwright to bring his materials into complete clarity.  The repeated surrender to cliche is what we all do, even in our most belles-lettres discourses.  No matter how original, every love story is that same old story with the same hopes and promises that rarely survive the accident or the adultery or the abortion as it limps toward death.

The superb direction of Alix Fenhagen keep these various dream-like pieces of the play moving with dynamism.  The stark set design byRyan Haase, the moody modular props by Ryan Haase and AngieMcNulty, and the alternately eerie and romantic score by Dan Cassin give color and surprise to a production that could easily turn static with such austere, difficult material.

This is not an easy play to watch and hear during its two-hour run.  Thinking is tiring.  But the dream-like images, the offbeat jokes, the questions about love, the testing of theatrical reality, even those strange words read out of the dictionary will stay with you through the night---and then some.