A masterfully bleak “Scarlet Ibis” from Boston Opera Collaborative

January 18, 2019 at 11:20 am

By Andrew J. Sammut

Lucas Coura was sympathetic and believable as frail youngster Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis."

Lucas Coura was sympathetic and believable as frail youngster Doodle in “The Scarlet Ibis.”

A convincing young cast powered a gripping and confident first performance of The Scarlet Ibis by Boston Opera Collaborative on Thursday night at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall.

Adapted from James Hurst’s 1960 short story, the opera centers around a frail and sickly boy, Doodle, who is unable to walk, and an unnamed older brother who torments him with a misplaced determination to “cure” the ailing child. In a story of destructive expectations and unrequited brotherly love, composer Stefan Weisman and librettist David Cote have distilled the brother’s narration into thirteen concise, powerful scenes exploring a range of family emotions.

The production calls for a puppet to enact Doodle’s movements, with the vocalist playing him and occasionally the rest of the cast moving the doll onstage. This effect and the continuous reconfiguration of onstage tables for each scene’s setting were occasionally awkward, but not enough to undercut the opera’s dramatic force.

Mezzo soprano Ann Fogler as the Brother projected both playful energy and naive indifference, and made a lasting impression in the opening scene — the Brother noisily at play, humorously and troublingly oblivious to the world around him. Exclamations of the Brother’s impatience with Doodle’s infirmity were spat out with real venom. In one scene, a moment of reprisal for Doodle, Fogler exuded a disturbing glee at the sight of Doodle drawing blood from the Brother.

Countertenor Lucas Coura depicted a plaintive but never pitiable Doodle. In his aria, “Brother, I’m Broken,” Coura employed a haunting vibrato to emphasize Doodle’s shattered body. Coura was as believable in carrying his character’s suffering as he was in occasionally rising up to defend himself against his brother’s verbal attacks.

Mezzo soprano Britt Brown earnestly conveyed the mental and emotional gamut of the Mother who bears and raises a sick child. Her labor pains were agonizing without turning histrionic, her sudden shift from hope to dejection at the prospect of another doctor for Doodle was palpable, and her prayer toward another family was majestic in its kindness.

As Doodle’s father, baritone Scott Ballantine evoked determination alongside sadness, with downright intimidating scolding of his eldest son and tender reassurances to his wife as they embrace their difficulties. As the boys’ pious aunt, mezzo soprano Emily Harmon delivered several comic lines with sharp timing that briefly eased the tension. Yet her trancelike prediction of Doodle surviving through infancy and her other foreshadowing statements left their mark at key points throughout the opera. All three mezzos sang with distinct tone and characterization that provided just enough variety to the music.

Weisman’s often dissonant but firmly tonal score alternates sudden outbursts of emotion — violence and occasional joy — with stretches of more static music serving as backdrop for various characters. But orchestral touches enlivened the dialogue: an undulating viola under the mother’s lullaby; an atmospheric choir of oboe, vibraphone and strings presiding over the naming ceremony; and double reeds evoking the swamp where the Brother brings Doodle, determined to teach him to walk.

Conductor Tian Hui Ng’s direction moved the story at a tense, gradual pace towards its heartbreaking but somehow inevitable conclusion.

The Scarlet Ibis repeats 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday at Pickman Hall. bostonoperacollaborative.org; 617-517-5883.

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