Guerilla Opera serves a tasting menu of its past and future

June 14, 2018 at 11:53 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Aliana de la Guardia and foofoo performed at Guerilla Opera's concert Wednesday night,.

Aliana de la Guardia and Brian Church performed in Guerilla Opera’s concert Wednesday night. Photo: Dominique Dubois

On Wednesday night at Club Oberon in Cambridge, Guerilla Opera, Boston’s experimental opera company, looked to the past as well as to the future.

In a concert performance of scenes from two works the company has performed previously—Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis and Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin—Guerilla Opera’s singers and musicians returned listeners to the dark and delightfully weird sound worlds that have become a hallmark of the company’s shows. A short scene from Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s A Dead Body, which will make its full world premiere in 2020, revealed that those sounds should remain powerful expressive tools in operas to come.

Bloland’s Pedr Solis, first heard in 2015, is one of Guerilla Opera’s most successful productions. Its story is convoluted, telling of the elusive life of Norwegian writer Pedr Solis amidst scenes from his novel Stillaset and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play, The Tower. As the plot unfolds, Solis’s reality becomes blurred with those fictional stories.

Bloland’s music is the thread that ties the opera’s alternating narratives together. Electronics supply a wash of slivery sound while clarinets and saxophone blurt out single notes that gradually swing into jazzy riffs. Prickly as this score may seem on the surface, Bloland follows a traditional dramatic arc with these short scenes. Blocks of harmonies build and dissipate as the scenes rise to a climax and dissolve into brief moments of repose. 

Brian Church, as Pedr Solis, sang Bloland’s chant-like vocal writing in the aria “Black sky crimson and luminous” with conviction, as the instrumental ensemble supported him with spiky dissonances. Aliana de la Guardia, singing with a vibrant voice, easily handled the wide and difficult leaps in Adrian’s aria “For this moment formed.” 

Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin offered a contrast. Guerilla Opera is planning to revive this curious and introspective show in a new production next spring. In the first scene of the opera, Epstein’s strengths as a composer were on full display. Her music is spacious, and her short phrases, peppered with silences, seem to hang in space like a shaft of light. Yet there is always a sense of subtle motion that is made palpable through her lyrical vocal writing. 

De la Guardia sang resplendently as the titular imp, her singing supplying a touch of heartache to the character. Epstein, who also wrote the libretto, drew from the familiar Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, but added a backstory for Rumpelstiltskin. Though he possesses impressive magical talents, he is unhappy and fears that because of his looks he is forever unlovable. As he longs for a child, de la Guardia sang with warm humanity.

Epstein scored the Miller as a soprano, and Rose Hegele sang the role with bright-toned intensity. Brian Church was a stern vocal presence as the king, while Carrie Cheron, as the Miller’s daughter Gretchen, sang her wordless part with carefree grace. Here and throughout the evening, the small instrumental ensemble played with zeal.

A Dead Body is the tentative title for Salkind-Pearl’s work–in-progress. Wednesday night featured a short scene where a girl entices a watchman to leave his post. Based on Anton Chekhov’s story of the same name, Salkind-Pearl’s opera will revolve around three characters that watch over a dead body through a long, dreary night.

Chekhov’s tale tells of the harsh realities of people caught up in unanticipated situations, and Salkind-Pearl’s music captures the author’s objectivist intent. Cold yet resonant harmonies shift eerily while a solo violin chatters a quick pulsing phrase. Harmonic progressions are fluid and flow to the rhythm of the sparse text.

De la Guardia, singing as the Girl, is afraid of the dead body, so she tries to entice one of the young men watching, played by Brian Church, to come home with her. Church’s boldly sung lines offered only frosty statements in reply: “We’ll just finish our watch” and “We must watch until dawn.” Salkind-Pearl’s score adds a touch of mystery to the scene, leaving one to wonder exactly what the girl’s intentions are. But audiences will have to wait until the full premiere to find that out.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Guerilla Opera serves a tasting menu of its past and future”

  1. Posted Jun 14, 2018 at 9:15 pm by Susan Larson

    Nice review! Nice meeting you.

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