UO opera students put on impressive show

Register Guard, 04/20/2007, Concert Review [original]

The desperate poverty of an Irish fishing family and the malaise of marital couples in 1950s suburbia are rarely subjects of opera, but they were the powerful topics of three one-act operas presented last weekend by the University of Oregon Opera Ensemble and Orchestra.

This welcome trio of seldom performed 20th century operas, a perfect fit for a group of students, included Ralph Vaughan Williams’ searing musical adaptation of “Riders to the Sea” by Irish dramatist J.M. Synge, a clever nine-minute opera by Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti, and Leonard Bernstein’s more well-known operatic dissection of marital woes, “Trouble in Tahiti.” advertisement

Each opera has its distinct musical style and its particular locale, which the musicians and the set and costume designers all carefully elicited. The head of the university’s opera program, Charles Turley, directed each of the three operas.

“Riders to the Sea” is considered Williams’ operatic masterpiece. Its orchestral score depicts the violent weather that haunts the Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast and that sends many a fisherman to his death. In its more lyrical moments, the music underscores the melancholy of these people and their fate. The stark sets brought out the poverty of this family, which in the course of the opera loses its last son to the sea, leaving the mother and two daughters to mourn the loss of an entire family of men.

Jill Windes sympathetically sang the central role of the long-suffering mother. Lauren Green and Megan Williams took the pivotal roles as her daughters. While each voice was well suited to its role, the interaction among the characters was minimal. Instead of facing each other, the singers often turned toward the audience while singing even the shortest of sections. Still, overpowering sadness came through at the end as Windes sang of her last son’s death.

“A Hand of Bridge,” by composer Barber and librettist Menotti, was a delightful joke. Four large playing cards provided the background for two couples playing bridge, while all are lost in their own dreams. Maggie Lieberman, Kirsten Arbogast, David Fertal and Greg Guenther sang with good voices and careful characterizations, each having a short arioso describing such things as the purchase of a new hat, a desire for riches, an old flame and a dying mother.

Of the three performances, the most successful was Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” a work later included in his opera “A Quiet Place.” Bernstein’s rhythmic virtuosity, his set arias and duets, and his Broadway-style tunes distinguished this opera from the other two. Reliable baritone Gene Chin played the husband, Sam, with dramatic intensity and a fine lyrical voice.

Megan Sand played his disillusioned wife, Dinah. She caught the ambivalence of her character, but her voice often was overwhelmed by the orchestra. While this husband and wife try to find some peace in their relationship, a jazz trio sings, as if in a commercial, of an idealized modern suburbia. The trio consisted of Kelsey Chun, Davique Gustavo (who looked a lot like local tenor David Gustafson) and Guenther. Chun, in particular, provided an artificially happy, well-sung counterpoint to the desperate marriages in real suburbia. The sets succinctly illustrated the mundane lives of these people. advertisement

Musically these performances displayed the wealth of talent in the UO opera program.

Each opera was led by a student conductor: Christopher Olin conducted “Riders to the Sea”; Jerry Hui led “A Hand of Bridge”; and Jamie Ratcliffe took over “Trouble in Tahiti.” The orchestra played extremely well for each conductor, and except for sometimes paying more attention to the orchestra than the stage, each conductor displayed a firm understanding of each opera’s style.

The Opera Ensemble had enough good vocalists to fill the many roles required for these three operas, and surprisingly, some of the best singers were undergraduate students. The diction was especially good, a necessity for opera in English.

That all of the work – singing, sets, lighting, conducting – was done by University of Oregon students speaks volumes for the UO School of Music.

Marilyn Farwell is a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon who reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.

— Marilyn Farwell

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