Washington D.C. based Urban Arias has a marketing line that goes something like, “if you want a quickie, we’re your opera company.” If by “quickie” they mean short, interesting, and satisfying then they are fulfilling their goal with their current production Booze and Cigarettes: A Double-Bill. This evening of one-acts featured Thomas Pasatieri’s emotionally stirring Before Breakfast and Peter Hilliard’s opera buffa The Filthy Habit.
Before Breakfast, a monodrama based on Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast, was actually written at the behest of Beverly Sills in 1978. Sills retired before performing it. Although she produced Before Breakfast in her first season as Director of the New York City Opera it was only a moderate success. Revised in 2003 and designed for the inimitable Lauren Flanigan, the new version thrilled audiences and became much more well-known. This tragic one-act opera is gilded in the voice and physicality of Caroline Worra (Charlotte.) The composer, Thomas Pasatieri, was in attendance on Sunday evening for the post-performance Q&A. The discussion moved to the challenge in monodrama of rising and falling of action for the main character. When asked about this challenge Worra responded, “[Pasatieri] clearly writes it into the score. How great is it that he writes pages of a cappella singing at a time?” Worra, as the rejected wife of an alcoholic poet, has many moments for histrionics that are deftly balanced with breathtaking, wistful singing. For example, she poignantly cries out, “You are the child” over and over only to return to a near whisper moments later. Pasatieri’s orchestral writing is gorgeous and generous to the voice, even in such a dry space as Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre. The low lines of the bassoon, upright bass, and cello illustrate the pathetic and sad emotional state of Charlotte. With a dramatic vehicle such as this, it is surprising that it is not programmed that much more often, especially by small companies and graduate schools.
In a brilliant act of programming, Urban Arias’ Robert Wood (conductor) countered the emotionally draining Before Breakfast with Peter Hilliard (composer) and Matt Boresi’s (book/lyrics) sidesplitting The Filthy Habit. Based on a 1909 story, Il Segreto di Sussana, about a woman that hides her smoking habit from her disapproving husband; Hilliard and Boresi found it only natural to set it in 2003 after the recent controversial smoking ban put into effect by New York Mayor Bloomberg. The creators found a way to use the audience’s “cultural knowledge against themselves” to bring out humorous moments such as a one time nod to the Macarena in the woodwinds. Hilliard commented in the Q&A that The Filthy Habit was originally premiered in a double bill with Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Like Trouble, Hilliard scored for a male leading voice, female leading voice, and vocal trio. The trio (Monica Soto-Gil, Peter Burroughs, and James Rogers) strut through the domestic comedy of errors with a jazzy, cross-over style while Jennifer Aylmer (Susan) and Ethan Watermeier (Gil) spin through sensuous, irascible, and overall rich vocal lines.
Opera lovers in search of something new and different should definitely check out the rest of the Urban Arias performances which run through April 22nd. Only in their second season, they have shown a knack for casting need-to-know singers in works by living composers and librettists. D.C. audiences should feel proud to have yet another company that provides engaging performances in a great venue. For more info: www.urbanarias.org
Production Photos by: Clint Brandhagen