Oceanic Verses – Review

[This review is based on mere snippets of the overall opera. The performance was part of the New Works Sampler at the 2012 Opera America Conference. Click here to find all of the works showcased at the conference or please find them at the end of this review.]

Beth Morrison Projects has been getting some seriously cool press as of late and I couldn’t help but be quite anxious to receive one of her new projects. She’s currently working with composer Paola Prestini (co-founder of multimedia arts company VisionIntoArt) and lyricist Donna di Novelli on Oceanic Verses, a new multimedia opera. The program notes help to prepare us, fore-mentioning (nearly a disclaimer) that there is no linear narrative; making clarity difficult to obtain and circumstance quite subjective. Our high hopes were put on hold after observing the curious vision of Oceanic Verses. I have to say this: I must and I will watch this again. I must because in order to accurately assess the story and symbolism, I need to experience it again (and perhaps again and again). I will because it was indeed quite an inquisitively progressive piece. For starters, musical theatre songstress, Helga Davis, started the piece a capella and her belting approach to the sung line was a melancholic bewailing of some dramatic issue which was seemingly insensible to the audience. Without proper understanding of circumstance, the emotional direction of her character (a Scholar who lost a briefcase containing pertinent documents of immigration research) is somewhat lost. I was, however, quite intrigued. I found most curious the quote in her bio from Wire magazine stating, “a powerful vocalist with an almost operatic range…”

I gradually warmed up to the rich tones of steely baritone, Christopher Burchett. His depth and focus is quite beautiful and successfully used his instrument to enact the love-deprived, struggling Soldier with ease. Light soprano, Nancy Allen Lundy, portraying a peasant woman in search for a better means for her children provided a timid sweetness to the overt drama from Davis and Burchett. Together, their intonation and blend within the steady stream of piano accompaniment created a peculiarly new-age timbre and modernized structure.

Secondly, making matters more difficult in terms of comprehension was the immense proportions of which we’re asked to perceive the piece. The endless possibilities of dramatic impulse suggested by the title exist on a virtually infinite scale. This is, I think, what will make us want to see this again and again – we’ll take something completely new from it each time we see it.

Overall, I must and I will see this project in its entirety. I didn’t have a chance to talk with the creators afterward, but, given the immense cerebral aspect of the piece due, in part, by a lack of linear narrative, I’ll go out on a limb to say that finding a comprehensible snippet to perform was a difficult task. This is a true example of art that must be seen in its entire scope and medium. I don’t know if it’ll be for everyone, but those of us that like to perpetually think, philosophize and dream – it’s a gem. High hopes restored!

Photo: Katherine Ehle/OPERA America

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