Sunday, June 8, 2014

A handful of 20th- and 21st-century chamber operas hits IndyFringe Theatre

Even at its smallest scale, opera does something outsize with the sketchiest drama. A succinct demonstration of the art form's capacity to be larger than life when verbal expression is set to music is being presented this weekend at IndyFringe Theatre. (The second and final performance is at 3 this afternoon.)


Intimate Opera of Indianapolis' "Hoosier Connections" presents five operas in just over an hour. They cover a wide range of topic and character, although the tiny format threatens to lend them the hit-or-miss quality of haiku. In some sense, the brevity they share tends to dominate the impressions they make on the audience.

The program title didn't apply in the case of the opener, Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge." But launching "Hoosier Connections" with a major composer's minor work helped dial back the audience's expectations even as it set rather a high bar for the other composers.

Barber's piece opens up the conflicts among two couples that gather regularly to play cards. As the game proceeds, four interior monologues are fleshed out operatically to indicate what each player is really thinking about.

All the solos are  individually characterized by Barber, giving something substantial for Detra Carter, Emmi Malcomson, Blake Kendall and Christopher Parker to express. And so they did, directed by Amy Hayes and Steven Linville, with Linville conducting and Hidetaka Niiyama at the electric piano.

Based on what followed, the best lesson the other composers could learn from Barber is not to overload the instrumental accompaniment, nor to make it heavily parodistic. Both errors tend to swamp the singing, which should of course be foremost. And the singing was magnificent in the main role of  John Chittum's perplexing "Cake."  Mariele Gonzalez played Sarah, the troubled customer of a bakery, whose cake order is much more than a routine business transaction, involving supernatural matters and questions of personal identity.

Chittum's barbed score made extensive use of dissonances of the tone-cluster type, and also relied overmuch on a pounding instrumental pulse. It would seem the scenario's serious nature could have been communicated without so dense an accompaniment. Among Gonzalez's triumphs in the role was to consistently rise above the accompaniment's busyness.

Turning to the domestic comedy of "The Sands of Time," the muse of Peter Reynolds moved him in a Mozartean direction. A marital spat is resolved, for the time being, by the arrival of good news at the door. The two-person Chorus, deliverer of the glad tidings, was brightly sung by Rachel Konchinsky-Pate and Carissa Riedesel. But the quarreling couple (Sarah O'Brien and Thom Brown) was somewhat hampered by the scenario's sketchiness.

Flat characters can be a burden even in the spacious dramas of traditional opera. In mini-operas, flatness might as well be embraced. That is what Bill Kloppenburg does in the cartoonish science-fiction scenario of "Fear Not the Robot."  With helpful posters displayed on and removed from a tripod to one side of the stage to signal each scene, the work bubbles along. It's perky under the direction of Linville,  and the visual elements — chiefly puppets, dominated by decorated handheld canisters for the comically menacing robots — enhanced the effect. "Fear Not the Robot" worked well, in other words, as well-balanced musical theater, even at a trivial level of ambition.

More searching in its implications was Scott Perkins' "Charon," presented in its two-piano-arrangement premiere in this production. A character study of the legendary ferryman to the underworld, the work in this performance benefited hugely from the committed portrayal of the title character by bass-baritone Jerome Sibulo.

The character's anguish — the hooded figure hates his job — was well-suited to the vocal line. The accompaniment, despite twice as much keyboard potential as the other operas, was never overbearing. The souls whom Charon ferries across the Styx had a range of reactions to their journey that were nicely delineated by the cast. The plague of memory-sucking mosquitoes each is tormented by becomes a device cleverly turned upon Charon at the end.

Here was an opera that had a firm sense of the dramatic uses of brevity. Like "A Hand of Bridge," it is basically an anecdote, but, in this performance, one that seemed sure of itself. It was neither too eager to  overwhelm the audience, like a mini-"Erwartung," nor overmodest  in settling into short-form operatic constraints.