by Steven Pisano
Heartbeat Opera is one of a number of smaller opera companies seeking to maintain traditional opera as a vital force in the twenty-first century by reimagining works from the canon in edgy new ways that mirror the electric productions of contemporary operas put on by the likes of the Prototype Festival, Opera Philadelphia, and Nashville Opera. It is as if the folks at Heartbeat view Mozart, Donizetti, Beethoven, and so on, as being every bit on the current scene as David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, Kevin Puts, and other contemporary opera-composing stars.
That can be a very exciting endeavor, producing traditional operas less as historical artifacts and more as essential works that still have meaningful relevance to today's binge-watching audiences. At the same time, for purists, it can be akin to heresy. Traditionalists are accustomed to turning a blind eye toward nips and tucks that trim bloated works from the past, but Heartbeat Opera goes further. Not simply content to apply window dressing to accommodate modern tastes and attention spans, they wrestle old operas onto the table, dissect them from the inside, then put all the parts back together in a way that sometimes stays true to the original and other times veers far astray. In many ways, the result is less an interpretation than a collaboration across time--the composers and librettists from two centuries ago paired with the theater artists of today.
As part of the 2018 New York OperaFest now playing through June all around town, Heartbeat Opera is presenting Mozart's Don Giovanni and Beethoven's Fidelio at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Both productions feature stellar young casts in exciting, stripped-down productions that burn brightly both musically and theatrically.
In Mozart's Don Giovanni, directed by Louisa Proske, brings the women's stories more to the fore, in a way reflective of the #metoo times we live in. The title character is still an unrepentant, hedonistic S.O.B. with no apparent understanding of the consequences of his self-satisfying desires, but here the women, while still victims of abuse, take a more active role in his eventual downfall.
John Taylor Ward gives a sly, sizzling performance as Don Giovanni. His Giovanni seems more intent on the fun and frolic of his adventures, like some fraternity bro gone amok, and less the power- and money-hungry schemer that more traditional productions portray. The downside is that when Giovanni meets his justice in the end (in the original opera, being dragged down screaming into the flames of Hell), we feel less of a self-righteously moral victory that the sinner has received his due. (Also, there is no Commendatore statue that comes to life, which has always been a fun part of this opera.)
Amongst a cast of excellent performances, Felicia Moore as Donna Elvira deserves a special nod not only for the range of her singing, but also for the range of her emotions. Also of special note is Matthew Gamble's turn as Leporello, Don Giovanni's forever put-upon servant, who sings his arias with zest.
Rounding out the cast are Leela Subramaniam (Donna Anna), Barrington Lee (Commendatore/Massetto), Keith Browning (Don Ottavio), Samarie Alicia (Zerlina), and Parker Drown and Zina Ellis in a number of supporting roles. The 8-piece orchestra conducted by violinist Jacob Ashworth is superb, fully capturing Mozart's widely expressive music, with a special emphasis on the clarinet (played by Gleb Kanasevich), which as the show program notes was just gaining prominence in orchestras at the time that Mozart was composing.
While Mozart wrote a shelf full of the greatest operas ever penned, Ludwig von Beethoven wrote only one, Fidelio. Originally entitled Leonore, or the Triumph of Marital Love, it is not only a story of love but also a highly political work that, like Don Giovanni, has fresh resonance in today's highly political world.
In the original libretto, Florestan is a political activist who attempts to expose crimes committed by a rival, Pizarro. But Pizarro eliminates his problem by secretly incarcerating Florestan in a prison he runs. Florestan's wife, Leonore, learns of his whereabouts and then hatches a plan to seek work at the prison disguised as a man in order to spring her husband free, which she eventually does after exposing Pizarro's corruption to a government minister.
That basic story line is maintained in Heartbeat Opera's production, but here Florestan has become simply Stan; Leonore has become Leah; the heterosexual prison guard Marzelline (a guy, who falls in love with Leonore when they work together) has become the lesbian Marcy; the main jailer Rocco, Marzelline's father, has become Roc; and Pizarro, well, has somehow remained as Pizarro.
One of the original features of Fidelio is that it has passages of spoken dialogue, not recitative that other operas use for discourse between arias. Here that spoken dialogue is in English, while the arias are sung in the original German. That can be a little comical at times, following the prison action as if it were the cableseries Orange Is the New Black or Oz, then hearing the performers start singing high German. Beethoven's music is so beautiful, it made me wish there was a strong English libretto to replace the German (not only because of the back-and-forth between languages, but also because the subtitles were sometimes difficult to read on the back wall because of the brightly lit set).
Derrell Acon as the jailer Roc is the centering weight of the production. He gives a magnetic performance as a man who follows orders from his boss to slowly starve the prisoner hidden in the dungeon of the jail, but then slowly comes to realize that the faceless heap in the dark is really a man, just like him.
Kelly Griffin as Leah sings her arias with the sweet, persistent passion you would expect of a woman who is trying to free the husband she loves from his unjust imprisonment. I kept waiting for her to sing a new song!
Daniel Klein as the corrupt Pizarro sang strongly, but somehow was too nice, and did not seem believable as an unscrupulous strongman who would jail and murder his enemies.
Malorie Casimir is girlishly appealing as Marcy, but has little to do, and Nelson Ebo, as the prisoner, sings touchingly at the very end of the opera, as Pizarro descends into the dungeon with a knife to kill him until Leah saves the day.
But perhaps the strongest vocal performance was given by men who were not actually there in the theater, and who could not be because they are incarcerated in prisons across the country. One of the most famous parts of Beethoven's opera is a prisoners' chorus. In a brilliant theatrical stroke, director Ethan Heard and co-musical director Daniel Schlosberg travelled to prisons in Iowa, Ohio, Kansas, and Minnesota that had mens' choruses, where they taught the singers the chorus, then had it recorded and videotaped. So on the back wall was projected a video of the inmates singing while their voices filled the theater. It was a deeply stirring moment that palpably resonated with the audience. (Letters from these real prisoners to Heartbeat were posted in the lobby of the theater.)
The 2018 New York OperaFest continues in the coming weeks with a wide variety of operatic performances by different companies. Check out the listings here.
More photos can be found here.