Charleston Chamber Opera: "Pilot Season" 

CCO’s ambitious debut entertains but needs polish

Charleston Chamber Opera’s debut performance certainly conveyed the astoundingly huge ambition of creating an opera company devoted to presenting chamber opera in a novel fashion. The effort is worthy effort, but fell just short of the brass ring...for now.

Perhaps it was the venue. Throughout the performance, visions of Dock Street danced through my head. It’s not that the Circular Church can’t hold its own where music is concerned; it’s just that more than a little of the wit and charm of this production floated up to the top of the church, then gently trickled down. It should have been a bit more in our faces from the moment it left the stage. Which brings up the question of balance. All three of my companions reported not being able to understand our singers through most of the production. I fared a little better, but must admit that occasionally the nine piece orchestra did drown out quieter vocal passages. And they have such good chops! All of them!

CCO’s concept itself borders genius. String together four (four!) chamber operas by dangling them from an ongoing theatrical performance, as if they were being filmed for the upcoming television season. In this case, its plot used the unavailability of Julia Child to mirror, then dissolve into Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone. Bass/baritone Timothy Lafontaine created a perfect blend of nervous anticipation and exasperated frustration, as Ben is continuously thwarted in his attempts to propose marriage to soprano Tami Schwartz’s Lucy, mostly by her obsessive love for her telephone. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself. Or am I?

The production’s stage manager took the stage first for some “actual” announcements, then took her place stage right to not only control the lighting (and telephone...), but also to act. Lucy enters and we received our first bit of wall-bending friction when the stage manager activates the telephone, breaking her conversation with Lucy. Enter soprano Patrice Tiedemann as Heddy, an actress, here to play Miss Manners. Miss Manners on Music by Dominick Argento consists of a musical monologue arguing that “music worth listening to, is worth listening to.” Patrice, a buttery soprano, gave Miss Manners a perfectly righteous prissiness leavened by just the right touch of excitement when it’s time to “cut loose.”

Next up on the fall schedule: Thomas Pasatieri’s The Women. Patrice (Heddy) plays the Mother, Timothy (Ben) the Man, and mezzo-soprano Lara Wilson (Crystal) the Man’s Wife. The Women’s angular score and air of Greek tragedy filtered through the third act of Our Town, highlighting the shadowy surrealism of their seemingly eternal conflict. Our singers wore masks through much of this opera, and while they were designed to aid in projection, I’m afraid they added to the confusion of sound mentioned earlier. Timothy’s wonderful range found welcome, yet completely frustrated lines I wished I’d been able to hear a bit better. Lara’s velvety rich mezzo fared better, providing beautiful jealousy over her mother-in-law’s attention to the Man of both their (former) lives.

After a short intermission we were back to the “studio,” where Julia Child’s transportation problems instigate a bit of subterfuge on the part of Lucy. Crystal has just performed the part of Julia for Saturday Night Live, so Lucy throws her on set to be Julia for a live broadcast. Bon Appétit!, by Lee Hoiby follows, taking the humorously operatic qualities inherent in the real Julia and giving them, well … tuning. The music provided an apt backdrop, with its constant twists and turns; elements of jazz mixed with modern classical and Broadway perfectly complemented the stately frenzy of that famous chef. Once again, my only complaint would be about the balance of singer and orchestra. This work involves a great deal of exposition on the part of the singer, and the lack of balance made it very hard to follow as the cake was baked. There were moments, especially after “Julia” takes a few snorts of wine, that should have left the audience rolling on the floor, yet elicited mainly polite snickers.

And now the plot of the play merged with the opera. Menotti’s The Telephone brought Ben’s frustrated efforts to win the hand of Lucy out of the theatrical and into the operatic realm. Hearing Menotti performed during festival season is always a treat, and I was grateful that the problems I’d had with this performance so far were much less evident during the closing. And we finally got to hear the wonderfully full soprano of Tami Schwartz! But poor Ben … constantly pushed to the side during this most important moment by technology, his frustration edges ever closer to the madness of anger, until he decides that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The opera ends with his proposal, made by phone, to which Lucy joyfully consents in a ravishing duet, bringing our show to a rousing close.

Charleston Chamber Opera has set an incredibly lofty and ambitious goal for themselves with this sort of production. They definitely showed they have the drive and talent to make this marriage of theatre with opera open up new audiences for both forms. “A beginning is a very delicate time,” wrote Frank Herbert, in reference to balances being correct. CCO’s balance was a bit off at their debut, but here’s to that being merely the birth pangs of something truly wonderful!

Charleston Chamber Opera: “Pilot Season” • Piccolo Spoleto Special Events • June 4,5,6 at 7:30 p.m. • Circular Congregational Church

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