Opera Review (NYC): ‘Kings, Giants & Robots’ – Works by Victoria Bond, Herschel Garfein, Robert Paterson (May 13, 2022)
Composer Robert Paterson’s Mostly Modern Projects (MMP) is a melting pot of musical creativity and, I now know, a forge for opera and adjacent opera. Kings, giants and robots was a program of lyrical works by Paterson, Herschel Garfeinand Victoria Bond, co-produced by Bond’s Cutting Edge Concerts. The singers and instrumentalists were members of MMP’s American Modern Ensemble.
A Gulliver puppet
Victoria Bond’s How Gulliver came home in a very undirect way is an opera based on Gulliver’s Travels, still in development. With puppets, humor and good humour, it is aimed at all ages. Bond conducted selections featuring three singers and scored for string quartet and percussion.
Soprano Ariadne Greif and tenor Glenn Seven Allen shared much of the limelight in a few roles each. Both had great voices, as did baritone Jonathan Green in a Gulliver role as narrator. Greif and Allen delivered droll characterizations as well as confident realizations of Bond’s modernist-influenced, accessible and thrilling recitatives and ariosos. (Greif and Allen would return in even livelier roles later.) To help mobilize the action, two puppeteers operated doll-sized “bodies” which the singers carried on their chests.
The scenes are clever, funny, inventive and original. A trio of Yahoos bellowing nonsense in perfect synchrony. A love scene between the puppet Gulliver and a life-size woman of the Brobdingnag giant race features extraordinary duet writing. A musical interlude from a cleverly called “Danzibar” section cuts lightly to an intriguing and playful tango rhythm. The final selection brings together the three singers for a trio built on soft harmonies and beautiful counterpoint.
A powerful world first
The world premiere of king of the river by Herschel Garfein, a more ostensibly serious work followed. The composer has set the eponymous poem by Stanley Kunitz to music for orchestra (here a small complete ensemble) and baritone soloist.
Keith Phares was magnificent, surely one of the most imposing baritone voices on the stage. He seemed to really enjoy the material, and there’s a lot to enjoy. Garfein portrays the poem’s watery imagery (the “king” is a salmon) with seething, bubbling sound palaces that never dissolve into chaos. The music is dense and harmonically intelligible, the musical narrative episodic yet (like water) flowing and programmatic in interesting ways. And not only aquatic – for example, with a musical suspense on the phrase “on the threshold”.
There is a fluid interplay between voice and orchestra throughout. Unexpected rhythms and gestures in the orchestral score must make it a challenge for a singer. Phares sailed with full control.
king of the river is a wonderful piece of descriptive modernism. Garfein told us in a brief chat that he was particularly interested in the sound of a solo voice with orchestra. He made a considerable contribution to the relatively sparse repertoire of this configuration. Phares, conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the musicians of the American Modern Ensemble gave it a sensational premiere.
The companion is a stand-alone one-act opera by Robert Paterson that is also the first part of a triptych of chamber operas. collectively titled Three ways, they explore issues of connection and sexuality. When I talked about it with the composer during the creation of a video extract of The companion in 2017, he told me why he had been “bitten by the opera bug”:
I love to write operas. And the reason is that unlike orchestral plays where you write the play, the musicians learn it, the conductor conducts it and then, you know, it happens, with opera, there’s all these collaborators, the director and all the others, the singers have their own way of acting the parts. And seeing it all come together [at the Nashville premiere] was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever experienced, because you just feel like it’s this giant team effort.
The companion is the futuristic story of a woman, Maya, with an android boyfriend named Joe who is just too perfect – always happy, overly concerned. Wanting more, she asks tech Dax to update Joe’s software. Reprogrammed for “maximum realism”, Joe becomes an inconsiderate fool.
Directed by John de los Santos with a clever libretto by David Cote, Allen’s thunderous portrayal of Joe established him as a singer with exceptional acting skills. Grief’s naturalistic performance as Maya did the same, with baritone Robert Welsey Mason grounding the action as Dax and revealing an unexpected depth to the character.
Conductor McDonald’s chamber ensemble seemed to find the proceedings as entertaining as the audience. That didn’t spoil their sharp rendition of the sophisticated, melodic score, which features Paterson’s beloved marimba (he’s a marimba himself) and beautiful orchestral writing, particularly in the winds. Subtle touches made me smile, like a repeated little phrase that sounded evenly at first but actually alternated between horn and bassoon. But it is the general spirit of the play that makes this one-act opera so enjoyable.
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