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Opera triple-bill at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Mar 10th, 2018

James McKinnon and cast

Friday evening at Sosnoff Theater featured a triple-bill, three one-act operas. These operas featured quite different musical and singing strategies that exhibited extremely varied styles, yet a single stage scene was ingenuiously adapted for all three performances. All three were under the sparkling stage direction of Alison Moritz with James Bagwell adroitly conducting the Bard College Conservatory Orchestra. This was a memorable night.

Igor Stravinsky’s Pucinella (1920) was Stravinsky’s last cooperative work with Sergei Diaghelev. Picasso had drawn the scenery. They travelled to Italy to hear a revival of Giovanni Pergolesi’s (1710-36) work, which had an influence on this little operatic ballet. This charming jeu d’esprit offered pleasing melodies, exciting harmonic singing by the chorus, amusing pantomime, and wonderful singing by the principals: Angela Hendryx, Eric Finbarr Carey, SarahAnn Duffy, and Mark Chan. The production had that patina of polish as if they had done a hundred performances on the road. There was a birch tree to highlight the pastoral motif of this story that mocked the delusions of lovers.

John Harbison, with a libretto adapted from W. B. Yeats’ penultimate play, Full Moon in March (1935), offered a macabre vision of love by an old poet who never found satisfactory relationships among his various lovers yet thought that those whom he truly loved had rejected him, especially Iseult Gonne, the daughter of the Maud Gonne whom Yeats had unsuccessfully loved. This strange, angry, misogynistic play possesses powerful poetry that Harbison’s music greatly enhanced. The play was greatly influenced by Japanese Nōh drama. The story relates a virgin Queen, majestically sung by Chloë Schaaf, who announces that she will marry and bestow her kingdom on the singer who can move her emotions.

A ragged Swineheard, superbly sung by Luke MacMillan, appears as the only candidate. He sings with fierce emotion but the insulting song he sings tells the story of the Queen’s own conception. She is deeply moved and angry. She beheads the singer and remains a virgin under the full moon, the Ides of March being ancient annual pagan festival when the tribal King for that year was ceremonially executed. The Queen’s two attendants, Seol Ah Yoo and tenor Eric Finnbar Carey (again!) who had introduced the drama appear once more as participants in the drama holding marionettes of the Queen and Swineheard; their gestures were as hypnotic as their voices. The severed head begins to sing and the Queen goes insane as blood from the head drips down her arms, all set against the moonlit Tree of Life in the background. This was the most tragic and morbid depiction of the battles of the sexes I have ever seen. Harbison’s music and the actors created a shocking Otherworldly experience. Half in shock, the audience erupted with fierce applause. It was slightly strange to see the occasionally needed superscripts when the work was sung in English.

After intermission an Otherworld of lost pastoral innocence was conjured by a contemporary work by composer and violinist Ana Sokolović (b. 1968). Born in rural Serbia, educated in Belgrade, and now a Canadian citizen in Montreal, Sokolović offers new sonorities in contemporary music with Slavic emphasis. The slight storyline consists of young teenage girls getting a rural virgin prepared the day before her wedding. They wash her hair, advise on gifts to give her future husband which she cannot afford, and tell her how happy she will be with her new family as she leaves her current family before the girls fall to two bickering chorus teams that descend into scat insults, then reconcile around the bride to be. The Serbian language itself appears as an Otherworldly gift, as does the remarkable music conducted here by Jackson McKinnon.

The unusual and delicate harmonies conjured by the ensemble were delightful. The ensemble consisted of Rachel Doehring, Addie Rose Forstman, Zoe Johnson, Angela Hendryx (again!), Sun-ly Pierce, and SarahAnn Duffy (again!). There was an extraordinary moment of evening depicted before sunrise with a musical water movement that sounded like something John Cage had done. This was an extraordinary evocation of lost innocence coming from a composer whose country had been bombed down to its last bridge, hospital, and kindergarten by the United States. The magnificent birch tree now tinged with yellow autumn leaves delivered, once more, an ironic presence: I could not erase Robert Frost’s famous promiscuous fantasy poem, “Birches,” from my mind.

The meticulous professionalism of this program was awesome because it was worthy of a great opera house. Bard has exceeded itself. There is one more performance on Sunday afternoon.