Monday, February 10, 2014

REVIEW: World Premiere of "The Tale of Lady Thị Kính" Aims High, Falls Flat

When I heard that the Indiana University Opera and Ballet Theater would be presenting a new work by faculty member P.Q. Phan, I was both excited and concerned about the implications of this production. I have a sincere passion for contemporary operatic music, and so I entered the theater on Wednesday Feb. 5th for the Cream Cast's final dress rehearsal with an open mind and heart.  Unfortunately, I left feeling alienated and disappointed in what I witnessed.  When I tuned in from home to see the Crimson Cast's opening night via the IU Music Live! video streaming on Saturday Feb. 8th, my opinion was regrettably unchanged.

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính is based on an ancient Vietnamese folk tale depicting a woman who is banished from her married home, disguises herself as a monk in a local temple, and is eventually awarded the eternal bliss of Nirvana for her grace and moral diligence in the face of severe hardship. What could have been a powerful depiction of the rewards of faith and humility ended up being awkward, slow, and poorly constructed on many levels.

The orchestration is heavily influenced by Asian music and Vietnamese culture, and David Effron captured this affectation with aplomb.  Tonally, I enjoyed the pentatonic harmonies juxtaposed with contemporary dissonance, as they created a lovely atmosphere transporting us across continents and time. The rhythmic motives were constantly ebbing, which created a delightfully unpredictable pulse. However, unfairly proliferous vocal ornaments challenged the singers beyond the comforts of classical vocal technique, and they interrupted the text unnecessarily. Additionally, I felt as though the entire piece only communicated at a singular loud dynamic level, with little variation or nuance.

The libretto would probably have been more communicative if it had been left in Vietnamese.  The English text appeared to be a poorly translated version of the ancient story; it used strange words, awkward phrase structure, and on more than one occasion caused unintentional laughter among the audience members.  I found the story difficult to follow because the words were chosen so poorly, and I felt it difficult to care about or empathize with the characters because my eyes had to be glued to the supertitles. When the singers had lines of spoken text, the supertitles dropped out and I had to try to furiously decipher what was being said - and most of the time, I failed.

The stage direction by Vincent Liotta aimed to be visually picturesque and regal, but ultimately felt uninspired and static. I found it difficult to empathize with the characters when large emotional moments were swallowed by seated positions or closed-off postures. The chorus was in the exact same symmetrical position every time they came on stage and often stood in straight lines, which appeared extremely unnatural and two-dimensional. Additionally, I felt as though all the characterizations on stage were very Anglicized - aside from a few traditional bows and seated lotus positions, the actors had overtly Western mannerisms. On several occasions, singers bowed to the floor or turned fully upstage while singing, which interrupted the sound and drew me out of the moment.

The scenery by Erhard Rom was quite lovely. I felt that the moving bamboo panels were a perfect compliment to the setting, although I would have preferred to see a simple dirt floor over the sectioned faux-tile, which looked cheap in contrast with the rest of the set. The lighting by Todd Hensley was also vibrant and elegant, particularly in the final scene of the production when Tiểu Kính Tâm (formerly Thị Kính) rises high above the mountains in her glorified state. The costumes by Linda Pisano were surprisingly disappointing. In general, the Pisano costumes I've seen in other IU productions have been vibrant and excellently executed. These costume pieces seemed inappropriate, overly colorful, and some items looked as though they were store-bought.

Although all of the singers were left the unpleasant task of combating extremely demanding vocal lines and cumbersome text-setting, a few artists triumphed on both Wednesday and Saturday nights. Walter Huff's collaboration with the chorus was, as always, a pure delight for the listener. The ensemble was uniformly expressive and had a wonderfully crisp interpretation of the material. Sarah Ballman's portrayal of the title role was humble and feminine with a warm, balanced timbre, while Veronica Jensen's Thị Kính was rich, steely, and flawlessly controlled.  Sandra Periord was fiercely accurate with jewel-like coloratura as the lusty Thị Mầu, and Angela Yoon's warm bell tones complimented the blushing adolescence of the character. Sư Cụ, portrayed by Adam Walton and Rafael Porto, was the most honestly Vietnamese character in the production. Walton's growly baritone was a perfect fit for the character's commanding presence, and Porto's smooth and luxurious sound was lovely in the upper range, but parts of the role seemed too low for his growing instrument at this time. The role of Thiện Sĩ appeared to be too challenging and strenuous in its vocal demands; Will Perkins valiantly maintained composure but was clearly struggling to push his mellow, sweet sound through the rangy coloratura and dense orchestration. Christopher Sokolowski was voluminous, fresh, and tonally bright but clearly had difficulty with the text, largely due to the composer's poor vowel choices with regards to tessitura. Both Sooyeon Kim and Julienne Park sang the role of Sùng Bà with gusto. Kim has a gleaming tone but an unwieldy instrument that seemed too large for the role, and Park had a lustrous and shapely sound that complimented the character's tyrannical presence.

Also worthy of note were Lorenzo Garcia, who was charmingly effervescent as Nô , and his counterpart Andrew LeVan, who was hilarious and buffoonish with a crystalline high C. David Rugger as Mãng Ông was simply stunning, with an exhilarating and balanced tone. Ross Coughanour was also commanding and lovable in the role, with excellent stage presence and a luminous, rich sound.

In essence, I wish that I could give the overall production a better review due to the efforts of singers and musicians working hard to bring the story to life. But due to a weak libretto, unjustifiable vocal challenges, and a lack of strong direction, the overall experience fell frustratingly flat. With some revision, I believe this work could become part of the contemporary operatic canon.  In its current state, however, I am sad to say that this opera is not likely to be performed again.

Olivia Savage, Feb. 10th 2014

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính will be performed again on Feb 14th and 15th at 8pm at the Indiana University Musical Arts Center.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"Intoxication" - Bold, Loud, and American to the Core

Saturday April 27, 2013
by Olivia Savage

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the New Voices Opera premiere of "Intoxication: America's Love Affair With Oil" by Chappell Kingsland. As a recent graduate from the Jacobs School of Music myself, I am well-versed in how student composition projects can often turn out: disorganized, overly-intellectual walls of sound. Luckily, Kingsland seems to have a keen understanding of what makes music theater and opera entertaining, selling out the opening night performance at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center on Friday night, April 26th.

"Intoxication" is a factual story, chronicling the evolution of the oil industry from conception to modern day. The show is divided into two acts, and each scene represents a different time period within the 20th Century. It doesn't necessarily sound like a brilliant topic for an opera, does it? Well, don't be fooled. The story is fascinating and the structure of the show is quite clever indeed. The vignettes are short enough to not bore those with shorter attention spans, and each scene gives both historical background and an emotional taste of what Americans felt and experienced throughout the cultivation of the oil industry.

To me, the score is reminiscent of the operatic works of William Bolcom. Utilizing elements from a variety of genres and styles, Kingsland deftly blends operatic and musical theater vocalism with the many facets of "American" music, including folk, rock, blue grass, doo-wop, and jazz. Ben Allen-Kingsland's libretto is an exemplar of poetic craftsmanship. He draws from historical events, political figures, pop culture, and even mid-century advertising to show the evolution of American culture and it's relation to our growing dependence on oil. Without an obtuse agenda, Allen-Kingsland leaves the audience with a heavy message and a lingering sense of discomfort; we're all dependent on oil, no matter how much we wish to become more "sustainable" and "green".

The theater was a cozy venue, especially with a large pit orchestra and a sold-out audience. Steve Pollitt's set was minimalistic yet effective, employing a wooden oil rig structure, a few props, and a platform. The rest of the scenes were set with limited lighting and some projections, which were dynamic and well-designed. Elizabeth Toy's costumes were period-accurate and colorful, bringing the stage and characters to life while relying on donated resources. Carlos Andrés Botero kept the singers and pit musicians together under difficult circumstances, both relating to the space and the score. The music was incredibly challenging at times, with changing meters, syncopation, and odd tonalities. Impressively, there were no obvious train-wrecks on stage or in the pit, and Botero used clear and concise gestures in the face of obscurity.

Lee Cromwell's stage direction deserves particular merit, as he utilized minimal rehearsal time in crafting an effective, emotional, and entertaining musical theater experience. The singers' solo performances were riveting, ensemble scenes were well-constructed, and visual interest was always maintained. He adapted the material for a small venue extremely well, and there were no large sections of the show that lost my interest.

One of the most entertaining and visually-stimulating parts of the production was the choreography by Joe Musiel, which was most prominently featured in the numerous dance numbers scattered among the scenes. The dances physically represented a growing romantic relationship between the two characters "Oil" and "America", played by Ryan Galloway and Shannon Kazan (respectively). Galloway employed a very fluid technique, performing gravity-defying motions with intriguing liquidity. Kazan brought a more classical technique to the stage, with perfect lines, soundless landings, and a fabulous characterization of a young woman (or country) falling in love. When they danced in tandem, I was impressed with their use of space and versatility in style, being called upon by Musiel to seamlessly change from ballroom to tango to Charleston to swing and back again.

There were several standouts among the singing cast, and I appreciated how well the singers were able to employ classical vocal technique with the many popular music styles interspersed throughout the work. Zach Coates soared over the boisterous orchestra with sharp diction, a brassy timbre, and a larger-than-life stage presence. Conor Lidell gave a chilling rendition of an aria desperate dustbowl Americans during the Great Depression. The strongest scene came after Intermission when Vinéecia Buchanan, Sarah Ballman, Christine Buras, and Jacquelyn Matava sang about their lives as 50's housewives. When Buras expressed unease about the pressures of modern wifehood, the other ladies cutely reminded her that advertised items such as Colgate toothpaste, Jell-o, and lipstick make life better. Musically, stylistically, lyrically, and dramatically, this scene was terrifically entertaining and cohesive.

The rest of the second act was decidedly darker. A particularly disturbing scene portrayed four Presidential television press releases given by Carter, Ford, Reagan, and Nixon. All four discussed their views on the energy crisis and how to solve the everyday woes of the individual American. Reuben Walker was a terrific Nixon, assuming a revolting ego, singing decisively and seductively, and leaving a bitter taste in the onlookers' mouths. Charles Lyon Stewart gave a strong performance as Carl Sagan, although not without flaws. However, Stewart's intelligibility and vocal edge were among the strongest in the cast, hinting at tremendous talent and a solid technique about to merge in a capable young artist.

Smaller roles with memorable performances include Brayton Arvin, who crooned his way to a crowd's hearts as a linen-clad gas station attendant. Additionally, Ben Smith as President Taft asserted himself vocally and physically with great confidence. In an Andrews Sisters imitation, Sarah Ballman, Jacquelyn Metava, and Christine Buras made a lovely trio and found their way through complicated staging during one of the most challenging musical sections of the entire show.

Overall, this production has many elements of strong off-Broadway productions. There are a few blemishes yet to be healed, but for an amateur production and free general admission, it's quality entertainment at an unbeatable price, plus a chance to see some tremendous student work. Stay tuned for future productions given by New Voices Opera, and get in while you can...with performances this strong, the tickets won't be free for long!

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