Sanctuary looms large in Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, now in its opening run at LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT. The two-character opera is a taut psychological journey communicated in color, movement, and song. Tenuous moments of security crumble with every act, illuminating the harsh truth of our supposed safe spaces.
Ailing Bibi and her doting mother, Lumee, live together in seclusion — a transparent room onstage that lets light in while conveying to the audience feelings of claustrophobia. Locked away from the world, they ward off dangers with games, mantras, and medicines. The scene is an unnerving mix of fluorescent light and gauzy fabrics; Impressionistic melodies that refuse to settle in their downward trajectory; and flecks of golden yellow for our gilded cage to contrast with the impending danger represented by blue.
Soprano Anna Schubert is convincing as Bibi, capturing her lost innocence in pure, heartbreaking tones. A quartet of dancers plus choir members from Trinity Wall Street add depth to Bibi’s narrative, moving where she cannot and uttering remembrances that have been blotted out for the sake of survival.
Schubert’s acting is first-rate. Opera characters run the risk of being nothing more than caricatures if executed poorly, held together by scenery and costume. Not so with Schubert, whose role demands physical strength coupled with fragility. Whether crawling from bed to chair on her damaged legs or hurtling her weight against dancers holding her aloft, Shubert held nothing back in her emodiment of the protagonist.
Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb provides an excellent foil for Bibi to rebel against as mother Lumee. At turns caring and careless, you want to hate her but can’t quite bring yourself to do so. With a sickening feeling akin to Stockholm syndrome, Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins show the many sides to this mother-daughter bond gone astray.
The music anchors these disparate feelings and propels the narrative forward. Pulling from a wide range of influences, Reid put the ensemble through its paces in a tour-de-force that moved from lush and tender harmonies to urgent whispers and batutto textures, throbbing bass designed to engulf the venue, and glissandi that served to oscillate between soundscapes of hearth and horror.
Ultimately, the choice exists to accept an unfolding past or remain steadfast in one’s current knowledge of the world. In deciding, we learn along with Bibi that rays of truth are not so easy to put back together.
p r i s m closes Sunday, December 2nd at 2pm at REDCAT before moving on to the PROTOYPE festival in New York City for its East Coast premiere in January of 2019.
On Friday, the LA Opera’s Off Grand initiative hosted a concert version of Matthew Aucoin’s 2015 opera, Crossing. The performance took place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, with the composer at the podium in front of members of the LA Opera Orchestra, a men’s chorus, and the work’s principal cast. “In-Concert” performances of opera rely to some extent on enlisting the audience’s imagination to fulfill the drama, and this presented some difficulties for a work more contemplative than physical. Among a few misses, however, were dazzling moments brought to life by talented leads.
Looking around the audience during the opening moments of the opera, you might have been surprised to learn that Off Grand’s stated mission is to encourage diversity in music and audience. Any effort to “embody the diversity, pioneering spirit and artistic sensibility unique to Los Angeles through the art of opera” was lost on me—especially when compared with the success of The Industry and the LA Phil to exactly this end (War of the Worlds, in particular, comes to mind). Of course, performing any major new work is an accomplishment in itself, and the audience response suggests that it was an undertaking worth the effort.
Aucoin’s language in Crossing reflects a love for the sprinkled voyeurism of operatic form; from lush swells to anxious minimalist passages, the music oscillates between atmosphere and introspection. There was a fair coherence and smoothness in the progression of material, suspending the audience in a death-stenched tranquility, reflecting the opera’s inspiration from Walt Whitman’s volunteer work with battle-worn soldiers during the Civil War. The emotional palette occasionally felt somewhat two-dimensional, missing the orchestral characters that usually distort, lead, and reflect tacit internal drama in romantic opera. In a full staging, such emotional communication might have been assisted through attention on the choreography, lighting, or stage design, but in this particular performance the messiness of the orchestra obscured the musical and dramatic intention at times.
The principal cast were excellent, with Rod Gilfry (Walt Whitman) and Brenton Ryan (John Wormley) maintaining the storyline with strong performances throughout. Most striking was Davóne Tines’ extraordinary performance as Freddie Stowers—a role he created for the opera’s 2015 premiere. Tines was deeply engaging, with a rich bass-baritone voice, and a sense of musicality both singular and personal. The Messenger comprised the sole female role of the opera, performed by the talented Liv Redpath with soaring soprano lines that aptly marked the concluding sections. A strong chorus of a dozen men complemented the soloists, and together they brought to life Aucoin’s vision of human intimacy and tenderness amid the inhumanity of war.