July 2, 2012
A rollicking cast of six talented opera singers and one effervescent pianist brought absolute delight to a packed house at Pasadena Playhouse's Carrie Hamilton Theater presenting ÆSOPERA: A Chamber Opera Inspired by the Fables of Aesop. Fresh and innovative, this creative rendering of Aesop's timeless insights is a joyous fusion of operatic traditions, modern situations and everyday lingo.
The production grew out of a competition that gave composers one month to write a libretto and score on given subjects. Composer Jonathan Price won the contest and then collaborated on this series of mini-operas which breathes new life into five of Aesop's fables. While not all segments are equally effective, there is much to love. Each vignette is compact, and the aha! moment is delivered with punch. Not one is a snore.
In “The Inventor & the Riddle”, a father's dream of creating a flying machine is lost, and the simple crushing of a paper airplane in his fist causes a hush to fall over the theater. “The Dragon & the Queen” portrays the double-edged sword of power that can destroy a beloved, and is equally heartrending. The marvelously silly fable, “The Frogs & The Crane”, presents townspeople turned into frogs, who still yap for leadership from those who have betrayed them, and end up devoured by the Queen, who concludes her meal with a belch.
The gently rippling musical score by Jonathan Price is supportive and evocative, and beautifully rendered by music director Leonardo Sciolis, a collaborative pianist with personality plus. A libretto by Jeff Goode, Jan Michael Alejandro and the composer propels the narrative in a straightforward manner, with words that are poignant and often hilarious.
Jeffrey Stackhouse provides a rich baritone and emotional input around which others can play. Soprano Brooke deRosa adds sparkle with her confident presentation and thrilling high notes, even if those same high notes make for difficult diction in a few spots where impossible diction causes clarity of plot to suffer. Elyse Cook's flirtatious soprano is consistently spirited, and she shines in her ability to bring comedy to the production. Nandani Maria Sinha's mezzo-soprano is full-bodied as a cathedral bell, and a pleasure to hear. Jonathan Medina never disappoints, and Miguel Vargas is especially memorable for his touching portrayal of the Lion, when his tender song and willingness to sacrifice too much for love brought tears to this audience member.
What is equally memorable is the overall effect of opera, presented in a manner that is as unaffected and natural as a group of friends dropping by to play charades. Ingenuity, enthusiasm and a whole lot of talent sells this show, using no more than chairs and music stands as props, and producing impressive theater with insightful commentary on human dilemmas.
Presented by Southern California Lyric Theater (SCLT) & Alison Eliel Kalmus, the production clearly contributes to their mission to "enlighten, educate and foster appreciation for excellence in classical musical theater arts." Kalmus serves as stage director and producer, and is founder of SCLT, and she fairly bubbled over with enthusiasm at the audience response. I hope she overheard the comment of a father exiting after the opera: with his arm around his son, who was obviously excited by the production, he said to one of the artists, "You may have reached someone new today."