Æsopera: A pentaptych chamber opera by Jonathan Price
Performed 10/15/2011 at Blinn House, Pasadena
"Rave"* by Lauri D. Goldenhersh
As you've probably noticed, I'm always on the lookout for innovation in the classical world, and nothing pleases me more than finding it in spades. Jonathan Price, et. al., with the recent launch of their new chamber opera, have hit upon something truly original and blithely entertaining. Displaying wit, skill and very clever social commentary, Price and his two librettists, Jeff Goode and Jan Michael Alejandro, have transformed five of Æsop's fables to make them not only relevant, but pointed and timely in the modern age.
The cast was well-chosen, although I'm clearly biased here -- the female half of the cast are all Listers: Brooke de Rosa dazzled as she spent a great deal of time in the stratosphere; Diana Briscoe's pathos as Cassandra and her hilarious Queen Eel will not soon be forgotten; and Nandani Sinha has a palpable stage presence and charisma that are almost hypnotic. The guys were also thoroughly enjoyable: Miguel Vargas's plaintive tenor is flexible and charming; Paul Wong's lighter baritone clearly dwells more often in musical theater, but he handled the operatic style and gravitas very well; and Jeffrey Stackhouse, whose rich bass and outstanding acting rival many of those on grand stages.
With intuitive and engaging stage direction from Kirk Arnold-Smith and Alison Eliel-Kalmus, they all played multiple roles with superb acting and surprising interconnection: although this was a concert staging and the cast did use music stands and binders, I was unaware of this convention as I watched. The singers had obviously prepared well, and were off-book much of the time. When they referred to their music, it was appropriately unobtrusive, and did not distract from the action and the relationships on the "stage".
The part of "orchestra" was played by music director Leonardo Sciolis at the piano, whose fingers both flew so fast and glided so smoothly that even this difficult sometimes frenetic accompaniment seemed effortless, and all sailed through Price's gorgeous music. The score is just what I love to see from modern composers who care about their audience: Price does not shy away from modern techniques and sonorities, but while there is no doubt that this is a contemporary work, it is melodic and lyrical, full of lush harmonies and textures that serve the stories first, supporting their drama, their humor and the deep emotions portrayed onstage.
*No, I don't write reviews, but I reserve the right to Rave about performances I truly love. This certainly fit the bill. My personal hope is that the work will be performed again in full production, as it is just begging to be costumed and fully staged. The frog scenes alone would be worth the ticket price.
This event was also selected as a 'Hidden Gem' in the 10/19/11 issue of Next 7. The article is archived here. For more information about Æsopera, check out this page on Facebook, or the composer's website
BONUS rave: I took one of my students with me to this show, and have asked her to share her thoughts, as this was her first experience with live opera. Her piece will follow. (Thanks, Elizabeth!)