Women on the Verge

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Valentine’s Day propaganda focuses on the uncomplicated, easily commercialized aspects of love: two people, madly and faithfully in love, exchanging cultural tokens of devotion. That’s fine, but what about the rest of us? What about the many relationships that represent the difficulty, complexity, and precarious nature of falling in – and out of love? This Valentine’s Day weekend Opera Manhattan offers an alternative to La Boheme and L’elisir d’amore – the operatic equivalents to a dozen roses – with three monodramas, each representing a woman whose relationship is on the periphery or on the verge. (Disclaimer: Opera Manhattan’s Women on the Verge does not feature Patti LuPone and Almodovar does not make a cameo appearance.)

Women on the Verge begins with Thomas Pasatieri’s Lady Macbeth, a setting of the overbearing wife’s five monologues from Shakespeare’s Scottish play. The musical opportunities afforded by this text are numerous with Lady Macbeth’s provocative utterances such as “Unsex me here!” “Stick your courage to the sticking place!” and “Out, damned spot!” Pasatieri’s setting is dramatically monotonous. An attempt at declamation lacks the rhythmic thrust and melodic angularity appropriate to Lady’s ruthless manipulations. Sofia Dimitrova excelled in the many high-laying phrases, but lacked excitement in the middle and lower parts of her voice. Because the three monodramas are presented as part of Opera Manhattan’s role preparation series, one cannot fault Dimitrova for using her music, but a music stand would have helped her tremendously. Holding the music, she was restricted to careful and cliched gestures that fit the passiveness of Pasatieri’s music but not the agency of the character’s words.

Meredith BuccholtzCompletely different in tone is Pasatieri’s Before Breakfast, with libretto by Frank Corsaro and based off of Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name. As Charlotte waits for her husband Alfred to awaken and get ready in the morning, she reminisces about the first time they met, the dreams of her youth, how marriage has obliterated her dreams, undulating between manically yelling at Alfred or retreating into the sad recesses of her memory.  Pasatieri’s music is similarly manic in its dramatic shifts from nostalgic waltzes to a one-sided screaming match to declamation of Wagnerian heft. Meredith Buchholtz is devasatingly convincing as Charlotte. With just a kitchen table, a jacket, and a piece of paper for a prop, Buchholtz brought Charlotte’s entire being to life with fearless commitment to the character’s complexity. Not only does she have a voice capable of a thousand shades, she is a specific actress, taking her cues from the music and the text alike. Hers was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and consummately executed performances I have seen in the 2011-2012 season.

Kala MaxymFrancis Poulenc’s La voix humaine has fascinated female singers of all fachs since its premiere in 1958. Everyone from verismo divas Magda Olivero and Renata Scotto to Broadway Bess Audra McDonald has been drawn to this story of a woman’s final telephone conversation with the man who is leaving her after five years together. The score and the story, Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of his play of the same name, combine the seductive ennui of French cabaret music with the banality of technology. Singing the role is deceptively difficult: it sits mostly in the lower, conversational range of a female singer’s voice with some intense moments that saunter treacherously around the passagio. One exposed high C – by far the highest notes in the whole forty-minute monologue – is unprepared and unexpected but thrilling. The singer must vividly paint the disembodied, unheard voice of her lover, represented only by the telephone, in order for the audience to be truly convinced. Kala Maxym handled the pitfalls of the role well, using a very expressive middle voice and a perfectly focused top to navigate Poulenc’s parlando lines with the woman’s frantic outbursts. Her interactions with her cordless scene partner were passionate and believable. Like Dimitrova, Maxym used the music, but she was afforded the luxury of a stand. While this freed her hands, her involvement with the score in front of her did detract from the spontaneity expected of a performance of La voix humaine. Maxym was at her most effective when she stepped away from the music, especially on the final reiterations of “Je t’aime!”

The minimal staging provided by Sarah Fraser was perfectly suited to the intimacy of all three of the monodramas. Works like these rely so heavily on the power of the artist’s abilities to communicate and electrify and so the small performance space – a penthouse at Shetler studios – brought the audience on the same level as the performances, creating the feeling of voyeurism, dialogue, and documentary. Opera Manhattan’s conflation of these three works is not easy to watch. It forces the audience member to confront the disappointments and perils of human relationships in very real and personal ways.

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