The magic lingers in Fort Worth Opera’s trio of drive-by operas

Mon Apr 30, 2018 at 1:58 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Javier Abreu teaches Maren Weinberger some steps in Joe Illick’s “Feel The Tango,” one of three works performed Sunday at Fort Worth Opera. Photo: Ryan Scott Lathan

The too-brief but wonderfully adventurous Fort Worth Opera spring festival continued Sunday evening with the first of three performances of the aptly entitled “Brief Encounters,” a triptych of operatic hors d’oeuvres by contemporary composers tackling the always timely subject of modern relationships.

These three short works — one each by Mark Adamo, Jake Heggie and FWO Artistic Director Joe Illick — varied appealingly from one to the next in their intriguing and unique outlooks on love. Each ran approximately fifteen minutes, and before a packed house at the 240-seat lecture hall at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, all were accompanied by Illick from an onstage piano. The combining of the three into a single production made for a delightful hour of thought-provoking music and theater.

Adamo’s Avow, for which the composer provided his own libretto, explores the fear and longing of a couple (baritone Samuel Schultz and mezzo-soprano Kate Tombaugh) on the verge of matrimony. A single chair onstage served as the only prop; a quick quote from Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, as well as the couple’s matrimonial attire, let the audience in on the subject matter. The mother of the bride (soprano Maren Weinberger) does her part by fussing about social aspects, and a priest (tenor Javier Abreu) arrives and mistakenly intones the Latin Requiem.

With his typical firm grasp of structure, Adamo casts all of this in a series of quick ariosos and recitatives that tee up a pair of fully developed arias for bride and groom, in which Schultz as the Groom recalls his own parents’ unhappy marriage.

The ghost of the Groom’s father (bass Zachary James) arrives for the key moment, an aria advocating family and relationships. The apparition’s full identity becomes clear when James sings a notorious line from Samuel Barber’s 1959 chamber opera A Hand of Bridge — a reference to a fantasy involving twenty naked boys and twenty naked girls. The groom’s deceased dad, it turns out, is also the ghost of the character David from Barber’s opera. The accompaniment, meanwhile, shifts from a mildly dissonant polytonality to a mellow, Barber-esque aura as all concerned conclude that relationships are worth the struggle they entail.

The second item in the triptych, Heggie’s Again, with libretto by David Patrick Stearns, employs a deceptively cheerful, Poulenc-esque accompaniment for a fantasy based on the iconic sitcom I Love Lucy. Anyone who has watched a few episodes of that quintessential slice of Americana is aware of the disturbing undertone of Ricky Ricardo’s occasional spanking of Lucy, presented as a joke in the series. In Again, Lucy (soprano Weinberger) walks onstage nursing a black eye and carrying a suitcase, preparing to leave, while Ricky (tenor Abreu) stares at the television. Ethel (mezzo-soprano Tombaugh) and Fred (baritone Schultz) arrive, of course, and the action takes on metafictional force as Lucy and Ethel discuss writing Ricky/Desi out of the show and replacing him with Dick Van Dyke or Troy Donahue.

Meanwhile, themes from I Love Lucy’s musical scoring weave into a tapestry of leitmotivs as the quartet ultimately provides its own creepy laugh track. Humor and tragedy collide tellingly in this miniature operatic masterpiece of pointed social commentary, which reminds us that life itself can turn into a rerun.

The final item of the set, Illick’s opera Feel the Tango, coincidentally echoes the musical style of Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires, the “tango opera” currently running onstage in the Fort Worth Opera’s production at Bass Performance Hall. With libretto by Susan Westfall, Feel the Tango offers an equally pointed critique of contemporary relationships, but with a happier outcome.

Long married couple Sandy (Weinberger) and Joe (Schultz), having attended their usual Friday night movie, arrive at their usual Friday night restaurant and order their usual Friday night meal — except that this time, while Joe stares at his cellphone and wanders into the bar to watch “the game,” Sandy falls into the seductive arms of the handsome Latin waiter (Abreu) and learns to “feel the tango.” When oblivious Joe returns, the waitress (Tombaugh) performs a similar seduction on him; the double distraction results, of course, in a happy reunion.

The relative intimacy of the lecture hall provides a hospitable acoustic setting for all of these fine young voices. Tombaugh’s mezzo-soprano has enough sweetness for a doubt-riddled bride and enough depth for Ethel Mertz. Soprano Weinberger floated lyrically from self-centered wedding mom to a Lucy Ricardo with a tragic edge. Tenor Abreu, though capable as a bumbling priest, shone most convincingly as the seductive Latin lover with a fine lyric edge. Baritone Schultz brought a gleaming vocal quality to his three roles. Bass James may have achieved the most memorable moment of the evening in his spectral yet overpowering presence as the Ghost in Avow.

Director William Florescu, working with minimal sets, created an unobtrusive but effective realism in these three fantasies, while Anne De May’s costumes provided quick and effective portrayal of character. Illick on piano provided the musical impetus. His unfailing artistic insight and his understanding of the needs of the singers laid the foundation for this entrancing hour of opera of a different sort.

Brief Encounters repeats 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday at the Lecture Hall of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.; 817-731-0833.


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