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"Written on Skin" at Opera Philadelphia

by Steven Pisano

"Written on Skin" at Opera Philadelphia(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

Proclaimed an instant modern masterpiece when it premiered almost 6 years ago at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera Written on Skin recently received its American premiere at the increasingly edgy Opera Philadelphia under the direction of William Kerley and the musical direction of Corrado Rovaris.

Originally produced in an earthy and rugged style, which was videotaped and released on DVD, the opera has been reimagined in a more sophisticated, almost futuristic staging by Tom Rogers, who also designed the costumes. Loosely based upon the story of Guillem de Cabestany, a Catalan troubadour who lived at the turn of the 13th century, the narrative can be interpreted in different ways.

The basic thrust is that a rich landowner commissions an artist to create a celebratory illuminated manuscript of his life (making sure his enemies are depicted in Hell). The man's wife is excited by the possibilities that the book presents, and begins a sexual relationship with the artist. But because the illuminated manuscript tells all, the landowner soon reads about his wife's betrayal in the book's pages. Enraged, the landowner hunts down the artist, carves out his heart, and serves it as dinner to his wife, who then leaps to her death from a balcony when she learns what she has devoured.

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Prototype Festival: The Echo Drift at Baruch Performing Arts Center

Prototype Festival  The Echo Drift Jan 19  2018 at 9-22 PMUnfortunately, I haven't had a chance to see most of this year's PROTOTYPE Festival of new opera, now in it's 6th year, but I did make it out to the Baruch Performing Arts Center last night for the world premiere of Mikael Karlsson's startling one-act The Echo DriftSet in a prison in a dystopian future, it centers around a female prisoner (Blythe Gaissert) serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. She is visited there by a talking moth (John Kelly), who offers her a Faustian escape by abandoning her connection to time and space. 

For a world premiere opera, The Echo Drift had a remarkably polished feel: from the industrial stage design (Elle Kunnos de Vos, who also wrote the libretto), to the Tron grid-like light projections (Simon Harding), to the always excellent International Contemporary Ensemble, which dispatched Karlsson's electro-acoustic score with total command. But, it was Gaissert who ran away with the show, with a fierce, defiant performance that grabbed my attention all the way in the back row. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of her on NY stages in the months and years to come. 

If you haven't seen it, The Echo Drift has one final performance tonight at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Tickets and info available on the Prototype website; info about other shows here

More pics on the photo page


"We Shall Not Be Moved" at the Apollo Theater

by Steven Pisano

"We Shall Not Be Moved" at the Apollo Theater(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

"We Shall Not Be Moved," which played at the Apollo Theater this week following its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia last month, is an urban opera that riffs on the history of the radical political group MOVE. Established in Philadelphia the early 1970s by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), MOVE is vividly remembered for several violent confrontations with the police - including a 1985 firefight that killed 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) and which destroyed over 60 houses.

Against this intensely violent background, composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones have written a contemporary story of urban struggle. Five teenagers, who have veered in and out of trouble, find their school has been closed, so they squat in an abandoned house in West Philadelphia - which just so happens to be the former MOVE headquarters from the 1980s. The house is populated by peaceful ghosts dressed in gray sweatsuits who dance through the house and try to guide the teens.

But the teens have also caught the eye of Glenda, the local beat cop. She wonders why they are not in school during the day, and eventually their interactions escalate until one day the police officer accidentally discharges her gun and shoots one of the kids. The young people grab her gun, then hold her captive, not knowing exactly what to do now that everything has suddenly spun out of control.

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Matthew Aucoin's "Crossing" at BAM

by Steven Pisano

"Crossing" at BAM(All photos by Steven Pisano)

The Civil War may have ended more than 150 years ago, yet in many ways our country has never fully recovered. The recent protests over removing Confederate statues from public locations have shown just how shallow - and how hurting - the wounds from that episode in our history still are. To be sure, we've come a long way since the 1860s, but we are still a nation divided. Not Blue and Gray any longer, but Blue and Red.

If opera is generally thought to be drama writ large, then the Civil War could be considered the greatest opera in American history, with brother killing brother hand-to-hand, and thousands of soldiers dying in a single day. So it's interesting that the young composer Matthew Aucoin, in his 2015 opera Crossing, explores a more intimate side of the war through Walt Whitman's diary, in which he writes about volunteering as a wartime nurse tending to wounded Union soldiers. But while the setting is small, the themes in Aucoin's opera are timeless--love, faith, betrayal, life, death, transcendence.

Aucoin, 27, composes music of a very high caliber, writes his own literate librettos, and is one of the most respected young conductor/composers in the country. (Crossing, Aucoin's third opera, was written when he was only 25.) First performed at American Repertory Theater in Boston (Aucoin studied poetry at Harvard), Crossing is having its New York premiere this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the annual Next Wave Festival.

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