Christman Opera Company 2018 Review: Adriana McMannes & A Metamorphosis
Madison Marie McIntosh Leads Strong Cast In Two Unique WorksBy Logan Martell
On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, the Christman Opera Company put together a double bill of operas by composer Theodore Christman and Anna Winslow.
Taking place at the Plácido Domingo Hall at the Opera America Center in midtown New York City, the event had a tremendous amount of intimacy and the proximity to singers only added to this. The stripped down staging by Mark Watson ensured that the focus was squarely on the performers with no other distractions to take away from the operas.
Throughout both works, Music Director Marijo Newman proved a brilliant accompanist, every musical line crystal clear. She was attentive to the needs of every performer and it was through her guidance that the afternoon showcased proved a great success.
First of the Double Bill
Heading up the performances of the evening was “Adriana McMannes,” which made its premiere in 2016. This hour-long opera had a number of enjoyable conventions. In a nutshell, the plot follows McMannes, the governess of a motherless child, and her blossoming love for Ernest, the child’s widowed father. The jealous Mrs. Fowler slanders McMannes’ reputation, forcing her to flee her home and lover. At his engagement party, Ernest reveals his fiancée as a disguised McMannes and forces Mrs. Fowler to recant, leading to a happy ending.
In the title role, mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh displayed a graceful charm throughout her first performance of the night. In her opening lines she revealed a vocal power that could fill a theatre, but given the classroom-sized venue, she swiftly adjusted to a more appropriate volume.
Her first number, a love duet with Ernest, concisely introduced the audience to their hopes and fears; their attuned swaying made for a cute addition to their vocal harmonies.
Not long after, we find McMannes deeply troubled by witnessing a kiss between Ernest and Mrs. Fowler; this dejected aria showcased the beautiful tones in McIntosh’s pained delivery. One moment featured extended vibrato as McIntosh dusted away at furniture, connecting her singing to the work she was busying herself with.
McIntosh possesses an enchanting voice as a result of her velvety mezzo-soprano combined with a posh, almost regal diction. While she can deftly weave the continuity of her vowels, and it’s quite something to hear her roll her Rs, the softness of her consonants led to moments where they were lost as McIntosh elided her way to the next lovely sound.
As the widowed father Ernest, tenor Kevin Courtemanche brought with him an infectious, bright-eyed energy. This energy made him a surprisingly fine match in his love duet with McIntosh, and able to bridge the chasm between their characters’ hearts as well as the chasm of their age difference.
Through this performance, Courtemanche was often found on cloud nine, only to be brought down by the sobering machinations of Mrs. Fowler. While there were moments where he forgot the beginning of his lines, Courtemanche bounced back with resilience.
As the envious Mrs. Fowler, mezzo-soprano Sarah Knott gave an abundance of life to an admittedly shallow character. Her first number, accompanied by a scheming vamp, displayed a fullness of voice one could expect from a character full of themself.
After a failed seduction attempt on Ernest results in a forced kiss, Mrs. Fowler spreads a rumor of McMannes’ insanity to drive her away from him. Entirely confident in her seeming success, Mrs. Fowler is forced to recant these claims at Ernest’s engagement party; the way Knott’s frigid demeanor melts away to a more vulnerable, even wounded, side of herself was a moment of complexity to be savored.
Rounding out the passionate cast was Eugenia Forteza as Mrs. Tonti, who takes in McMannes as a maid after she flees from her life with Ernest.
Her exchanges with McIntosh made for a lighter, comedic opening to the second act thanks to Forteza’s whimsical portrayal. As the only soprano, her higher vocal lines went well with the character’s lofty, almost airheaded, nature. When Ernest, himself posing as a lost traveler, finds McMannes, he easily gains from Mrs. Tonti her permission to work and be close to his beloved; Forteza, poised in her chair, then turns her back on the pair with a faraway look in her eye as if she were in a palace garden, and allows the lovers ample time to hatch a plot to elope in peace.
To the Shadowland
The second half of the evening saw the New York premiere of “A Metamorphosis.” This second work carried a spirit similar to the one before it; while more modern in subject matter and feeling, this too was a mix between freshness and convention of musical and thematic form.
To sum up the plot: A young woman named Juniper comes to stay at a theatre known as Shadowland, where homeless teens receive room and board in exchange for artistic services. Juniper quickly falls in love with Peter, who deals drugs under the cover of selling art, only to lose him to Clover, a promising sculptor who is the daughter of one of Peter’s clients. These unstable relationships are short-lived, and many of the characters die from illness or addiction, leaving Juniper, now aged and weary, with nothing but memories for companions.
As Juniper, Madison Marie McIntosh served as the lens through which the audience sees the plot unfold.
After a languid aria of remembrance, the audience is taken into her memories from when she first arrived at Shadowland, starry-eyed and hopeful. She quickly meets Peter, and is embraced by the troupe in a welcoming ensemble number. Almost as quickly as she is flung into the heart of life at Shadowland, she finds herself a bystander; McIntosh’s portrayal highlighted Juniper’s ever-growing concern, both dramatically and vocally, but most effective was when she called Peter’s name after breaking from the surrounding recitative.
Baritone Nobuki Momma, in the role of Peter, often found himself the center of attention in both the eyes of the audience and the gazes of the women around him. Through this Momma showcased a complexity of emotions in his interactions with Juniper, Clover, and Arinyae, the ailing matron of Shadowland.
With McIntosh’s Juniper, he displayed sympathy, but his ambitions and passions often left her in the past as an afterthought. With Alyssa Brode’s Clover, Momma relished in the truer romance shared between the struggling artists; their love duet featured a simply-sweet harmony evocative of a joyous present.
With Rachel Barg’s Arinyae, he cared for her as a son would for his mother, but her illness and growing fears created an ominous future which tinged their exchanges. Momma’s gentle baritone showed great flexibility throughout Peter’s arc of eventually losing everyone in his life.
As the sculptor Clover, soprano Alyssa Brode carried an endearing charm that won over nearly all those around her. Despite the squalor she sings of in her first aria, her glittery tones and demeanor introduced her as someone able to make beauty out of stark reality; this carried over into her light display, made of bulbs, silverware, and other shiny utensils plucked from the street, which stuns Peter and even silences the criticisms of Arinyae.
Finally, as Arinyae, Rachel Barg’s time on stage was limited, but highly meaningful. As the matron of Shadowland, she did not hesitate to voice her worries; when sizing up the newly-arrived Clover, Barg delivers some hostile vibrato at the end of the phrase “Can she dance or sing a song?”
In her dying aria, Barg illuminated some gems within the libretto, such as “no human hand can reach so far as to rearrange the stars.” This number took a desperate turn as Arinyae expresses to Peter not only her desire for rebirth but rebirth through his body.
This theme of transformation naturally reared its head a number of times through the work, such as the artistry of Clover, and the collective and individual struggles of the members of Shadowland.
“A Metamorphosis” explores the painfulness of becoming and seems to argue that what comes out of the cocoon may not be beautiful. For all the tragedy that occurs, there is a want for at least some good to emerge; Juniper lives alone and broken, as presumably does the crushed Peter, with Clover leaving after her father’s death.
With only an hour runtime, the show does cover a lot of ground both in music and story, and given its presentation as a double bill with “Adriana McMannes,” there is a highly episodic feeling to the works of Christman and Winslow.
Both operas feel as though they can be developed into full-length works and there would be much to gain from exploring the characters and settings therein.
While they play well within the conventions of opera, such as a romantic scandal in an upper-class household or the demise of struggling artists, some dialogue carried the sense of playing it too safe. One example came during “Adriana McMannes,” where every character referred to her only as “mentally unstable,” rather than any truly damning accusation. While “A Metamorphosis” has no shortage of enjoyable suffering, it ends only with the main characters traumatized but overall very much alive and intact, and feeling somewhat unresolved in any certain direction.
As Christman and Winslow work towards their next opera, they will no doubt produce a work that is both highly accessible and still poignant. This creative team may still be within its chrysalis, but what emerges is sure to be beautiful.