Christman Opera Company 2019 Review: An Afternoon of Music for HaitiChildren
A Delightful Afternoon of Glorious Music, New & OldBy Logan Martell
On October 26, 2019, Christman Opera Company presented “An Afternoon of Music for HaitiChildren,” a fundraising concert hosted in the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church.
The program consisted of opera, musical theatre, featuring three new song composed by Theodore Christman from his upcoming musical “Unfolded,” which tells the journey of Susie Scott Krabacher, founder and CEO of HaitiChildren, in her efforts to create an orphanage for the children of the impoverished island nation. Accompanied by Music Director Keith Chambers, the afternoon’s artists staged a deeply stirring performance in support of the foundation.
From Jake Heggie’s “Of Gods and Cats,” Amanda Tarver sang “In the Beginning.” The jazzy, prowling rhythm of the accompaniment was joined by Tarver’s playful crooning of the text, outlining its cat-based creation tale which uses phrasing from the Book of Genesis. Tarver’s charming, almost whimsical vibrato carried through much of these phrases until the number was brought to an end with the walking bass-line’s brief, punctual close.
Following this was the duet “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s “Norma,” sung by soprano Reyna Carguill and mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh. Taking Adalgisa’s part, McIntosh’s opening softly filled the air of the church with her delicate, pleading phrases. Carguill’s gentle anguish as they exchanged brief phrases led into the touching harmonies of their now-joined stanzas, featuring well-executed runs of ornaments.
Next was baritone Steven LaBrie, with “Jurame,” by Mexican composer Maria Grever. His rich timbre immediately present, LaBrie’s opening smoldered with passion which grew to powerful heights. The emotional nuances of this strong outpouring were well conveyed by LaBrie, utilizing a crisp and caressing diction of the Spanish text, before he sent the phrases soaring into a massive conclusion.
Bringing things back to opera was soprano Kelly Griffin, with “Tace la notte placida,” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” Griffin’s opening carried with a languid beauty, backed by the accompaniment’s minor circling. Griffin’s dramatic sense supported the vocal leaps which tinged her phrases with rapt, loving tones. Her polished vocality shone through the sonorous, heightened cadenza before the accompaniment took on a faster, galloping rhythm which Griffin rode to a wonderful finish.
After this was “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from Lehar’s “Da Land des Lachelns,” sung by tenor Raymon Geis. The lush chords of the accompaniment introduced Geis’ soulful, resonant texture which soon peaked with arresting passion before tapering back to the piece’s earlier mood. Geis brought this piece to an utterly expressive conclusion.
Returning to the stage was McIntosh with “Una voce poco fa,” from Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia.” The ornaments of her opening lines were given a relaxed, almost purring delivery, with her second repetition of Lindoro’s name bearing a clear, excited strength. The following quicker section saw her play to the crowd, pattering out her vision of their meeting with a conversational feeling. Though more than able to keep a faster pace, slower parts of the piece allowed McIntosh to indulge in gentle sustained tones, while rolling out certain phrases with playful invitation.
Next was Damian Wayne Faul with “If I Loved You,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Opening with the chorus, Faul’s delivery bore a roguish, southern charm which crested powerfully towards the subversive, tapering denial of love at the end. While powerfully performed, this number’s brevity left me wanting to hear more of Faul’s interpretation.
Next was Carguill singing “Ebben? Ne andro lontana,” from Catalani’s “La Wally.” The gentle tremolo of the accompaniment was joined by Carguill’s firm and lovely vocal lines, where the underlying sentiment nicely flowed between loving hope and delicate sorrow. With a controlled rising in the strength of her phrases, Carguil delivered a massive, conclusion of ruinous beauty.
After Carguill was bass Kofi Hayford, with “Old Man River,” from Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat.” This American classic carried a relaxed and richly-flowing texture from Hayford, being tinged with a biting frustration for the middle section. Nicely transitioning between these feelings, his return to the earlier stanza was ended powerfully.
Last of the operatic numbers was the duet “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s “Le Pecheurs de perles,” sung by LaBrie and Geis. Despite their differing ranges, the two made a fascinating pair due to their mutual richness in tone serving as a sort of vocal common ground. Their awed recollection of past infatuation gave way to captivating, rugged harmonies between the two, splitting apart as they exchanged argumentative phrases.
Ending the afternoon’s program were three numbers from Christman’s upcoming musical, “Unfolded.”
Introducing these numbers and providing context was Venus Gentile, explaining: “First you will hear a song titled ‘Babies for Sale.’ In this scene, the Haitian woman in charge of the abandoned baby unit of the government hospital assumes that Susie is visiting the facility for the purpose of illegally adopting a baby, for a fee of course. Madame Marcellus gives her assumption a hard sales pitch, after all, turning a profit is her top priority.”
Carrying this dark, jaunty number was Amanda Tarver, with her lovely crooning soprano lending a stark contrast to the text which casually outlines child trafficking, much to the shock of the couple played by McIntosh and Faul, voicing their disbelief between Tarver’s phrases.
While accompaniment was sufficiently seedy, there was little conveyed the locale of Haiti apart from a brief section where Marcellus makes threatening mention of voodoo spells, contrasted by the distinctly musical theatre feel of the piece.
“The second song,” continued Gentile, “is called ‘Wash the Dirt’. Susie is horrified by the condition in which these sick babies are placed; they are filthy and malnourished, with no caretakers, medicine, food, or sanitary supplies in sight. As she futilely attempts to clean the babies, her younger self pays her a visit, fully understanding what it feels like to be a child dirty and abandoned. Singing the role of Susie is Madison Marie McIntosh, joined by Michelle Guillot as Susie’s younger self.”
Opening with a light, delicate introduction in the piano’s higher reaches, this number was fleshed out as McIntosh and Guillot traded brief stanzas. The intended age difference was finely achieved due to their contrasting vocal approaches, with McIntosh’s honeyed lyricism coming across as more mature than Guillot’s softer, more natural quality.
While acknowledging and living in the difficulty of the dramatic context, this number carried a sense of growing hope evoked at one point by an upward, running piano melody before McIntosh and Guillot join their voices in tender determination.
“The final piece we bring to you today,” began Gentile, “is titled ‘The Standoff.” In this scene, Susie is marooned at the abandoned baby unit due to a flat tire, that has been slashed by a Haitian gang attempting to interrupt her efforts to clean things up, thus diffusing their own power.
“As she awaits repairs to be completed, a lone American enters the unit. He is visiting the island with a team of missionaries but is not fully sold on the idea of mission work in general. He is tired, hot, sweaty, traumatized, and aggravated,” she continued. “This is the first time he meets Susie who wants no part of him, for she does not need any distractions or expenses, and can afford neither; she is sick of the plethora of the price tags her efforts carry. Nothing in life or in Haiti is free; she is a woman who wears her independence like a medal. As Joe, her future husband tries to determine whether she is friend or foe. In the role of Joe is Will Kellerman.”
This last number featured a tense, rolling accompaniment which framed the confrontation as being very much like a dance. As the two traded sparring phrases earlier on, Kellerman bore a jaded tone which nicely clashed with McIntosh’s resolution. While the two were dramatically in-sync, there were instances where Kellerman’s voice fell well under Macintosh’s, despite the latter’s softer projection. A firm glissando from the accompaniment brought this number to a punctual close.
The afternoon’s program saw a highly-enjoyable selection of works, performed by artists truly passionate about their craft as well as their cause. It will be well worth watching how Christman Opera Company develops “Unfolded” as a musical, raising awareness and support for HaitiChildren in their ongoing mission to bring aid to children in need.