Guerilla Opera revives Vines’ dark, thoughtful morality play
Over the past decade, Guerilla Opera has presented delightfully weird and boundary-pushing operas that conjure and reflect on the basest human emotions. Audiences have witnessed works that delved into the psychosis of the 2008 vice-presidential debate, the life and writing of Higuchi Natsuko, and a mother-and-daughter infomercial on how to make a sandwich, among others.
No work stands out quite like Nicholas P. Vines’ Loose, Wet, Perforated, which Guerilla Opera premiered in 2011. A striking and vivid new production of the opera opened the company’s tenth season Wednesday night at Boston Conservatory/Berklee’s Zack Box Theater. Eerie, dark, and thoughtful, Vines’ work made for an experience unlike any other.
Vines’ libretto was inspired by medieval morality plays. Loose, Wet, Perforated tells of Loose and Wet, who compete against one another through four ordeals in order to climb the ranks of their Guild. The contest unfolds in what one character calls “a play against morality.” Loose is willing to do anything in order to win while Wet possesses an innocence that renders him ineffective to most tasks. In short, the nice guy finishes last.
The story, part comedy and part tragedy, poses difficult philosophical questions that are relevant today: Is it better to do whatever it takes to get ahead regardless of what is right? And will walking a narrow moral path eventually lead nowhere in a world where everyone is climbing social and professional ladders? Vines’ story leaves these questions unresolved by opera’s end, when both Loose and Wet realize that the world is not wholesome, but, rather, perforated.
The sexual overtones of the opera’s title are also explored. At one point, Loose, sung by Aliana de la Guardia, asks why she must climb a greasy pole, a metaphor for social advancement, musing while caressing the pole and rubbing against it (you get the picture). Vines’ libretto, which he stated in his program note is part “cheap erotica,” is filled with innuendo and double entendres. Some of the lines are groaners. At one point Wet encounters a troubled Baker’s wife who is suffering physically after ingesting bad bread. Wet observes “It must be a bad yeast infection.”
Vines’ colorful music fills the grim story with a sense of unease. The sounds run the gamut from shrieking saxophones and clarinets, groaning trombone figures, and punchy rhythms in the percussion. Vocally, the score is a marvel of text setting. At times the voices move in smooth, chant-like phrases that are only offset by bristly dissonances. At others, the lines are athletic and angular, conveying the same sort of haunting unfamiliarity one encounters in the music of Harrison Birtwistle.
The singers, composed of Guerilla Opera regulars, were excellent.
De la Guardia reprised the role of the cocky Loose (she performed the character in the 2011 production) and sang with a blazing, radiant soprano that was particularly strong in her upper range. She deftly handled Vines’ serpentine vocal writing. She was an equally effective actress. Her solo scene early in the opera was sultry without being gratuitous.
As Wet, Brian Church sang with a smooth-toned baritone that effectively captured the nervousness and innocence of the character. One couldn’t help but feel sorry for Wet, and Church’s portrayal made one sympathetic to his plight.
Countertenor Douglas Dodson sang vibrantly in the role of Perforated, the character who eggs on Loose as she plots to defeat Wet in the competition. Thea Lobo sang with a rich caramel tone in various roles as the Grand Master, Baker’s wife, and Milkmaid. The instrumentalists—Amy Advocat (clarinets), Philipp A. Stäudlin (saxophones), Chris Moore (trombone), and Mike Williams (percussion)—found the eerie malevolence of Vines’ music.
The new production by Austin Regan transformed the abstract setting of the 2011 original into a game show format that made the opera’s philosophical themes clear and palpable. Neil Fortin’s costumes were simple and effective, nothing more than jacket, dress, shirt, tie, shorts, and knee socks for Wet and a pink dress and blue bonnet for Loose. Some moments pushed the R-rated dialogue to its limit. At one point, de la Guardia was called upon to strip down to lingerie, lie on the floor, and have water poured over her.
As is custom in Guerilla Opera productions, the set design was minimal. Loose, Wet, Perforated unfolded seamlessly with boxes, water cooler, and blood red curtains, illustrating that a good story can be told through the simplest means.
And that’s what makes Guerilla Opera so special. With a shoestring budget, the company produces works that pack the same emotional punch and quality singing one can find in many larger companies. Let’s hope that this envelope-pushing ensemble remains on the scene for many years to come.
Loose, Wet, Perforated runs 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Zack Box Theater. guerillaopera.com
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