Weisman’s “Scarlet Ibis” just misses greatness in world premiere at Prototype Festival

Fri Jan 09, 2015 at 12:28 pm
Keith Phares and Hai-Ting Chinn in the world premiere of Stefan Weisman's opera "The Scarlet Ibis" at the Prototype Festival.

Eric S. Brenner and Hai-Ting Chinn in the world premiere of Stefan Weisman’s opera “The Scarlet Ibis” at the Prototype Festival.

Opening night of the third season of the Prototype Festival cemented its discerning, serious and professional approach. Dedicated to contemporary opera and music-theater work, Prototype has developed and presented pieces that stretch from the contemporary mainstream of opera to the experimental edge.

The festival launched Thursday night with Stefan Weisman’s The Scarlet Ibis, an opera receiving its world premiere at the HERE Arts Center in SoHo (co-commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects). With a libretto by David Cote, this is an engrossing, affecting work, composed with skill and fine judgment. The production and staging is smart and imaginative, and the cast is strong. The debut was impressive in almost every way, with only one crucial flaw marring the overall experience.

The opera is “inspired by” James Hurst’s short story of the same name, which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in July, 1960. The story is about a family in rural North Carolina in the second decade of the 20th century, and centers around the two young boys: Brother is the eldest, Doodle is born at the start of the opera.

Doodle has a caul, a sign of special powers, claims Auntie (contralto Nicole Mitchell). He is also born crippled and so near death that his Father (baritone Keith Phares) builds a coffin for him. Mother (mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer) has a gorgeous, heart-breaking ballad for what she thinks is her doomed baby.

But Doodle survives, although he’s a “cripplerunt” in the words of Brother, who is both a protagonist and the one antagonist in the drama. As Doodle turns five, Brother cajoles and bullies him into learning to stand on his own, then walk.

The relationship between the two boys is the core of the drama. Brother (mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn) has ambivalent feelings about Doodle, a mix of love, resentment and awe. Doodle is more articulate and imaginative, spinning a fabulous story out of what he calls the game of lying. Weisman’s music is melodic throughout, and he takes care to produce a careful distinction between Brother’s choppy lines and Doodle’s long, lyrical ones.

In a moment of cruelty, Brother forces Doodle to touch his own coffin. The coffin is one of the two dramatic signals, the other is the sick scarlet ibis that lands on the property, dies, and is buried by Doodle. The program notes argue for the opera’s Southern Gothic sensibility, but the music doesn’t feel that way. The coffin and the ibis are the true Gothic elements, effective in the staging and also indicative of the work’s collaboration. (The opera was commissioned and developed by HERE and the Dream Music Puppetry Program, and produced in part by American Opera Projects.)

The integrated elements are striking. Weisman’s writing has a foundation built in part on Copland’s populist style, but is much more convincingly romantic, wringing genuine pathos out of moments that Copland would have used for sentimentality. Cote’s libretto is clear, singable, and shapes the drama with fine pace and proportions. The set, by Joseph Silovsky, is mainly rolling tables and delicate silhouette projections, handled in real time by puppeteers Eric F. Avery, Josh Rice and Meghan Williams.

They also manipulate Doodle, who is manifested as a puppet of a small, blond boy and by countertenor Eric S. Brenner. This is a brilliant stroke that also holds the production’s one flaw.

Brenner is by the puppet’s side throughout, manipulating it himself in several scenes. He sings to it, and that interaction humanizes the object. This also demands that Brenner carry the part entirely with his voice, and he was astonishing, the musicality of his singing so gripping that one began to perk up in greater anticipation when a cue came his way.

Chinn was also excellent. The music for Brother doesn’t flatter the voice, and Chinn sang the deliberately gawky parts with admirable commitment, and her acting with and against the puppet, a dramatic challenge, was fine.

But in the end, the tragic final moments when the boys are lost in a storm in the swamp, there is no part for Brenner, and without him the puppet is just an object, one that can’t hold the drama. The opera goes from enthralling to an abrupt, flat finish.

The duration is one hour and forty minutes, roughly divided into two acts without intermission. The pace is relaxed but never static, and the music expresses the drama so well, and is such a pleasure to hear, that one never feels time passing. Instead, it is an accumulation of beautiful, dramatic details and emotional experiences that gather weight. One does not want the experience to end even as the final moments clearly draw closer. The shame of the conclusion is that it breaks this spell before the opera itself ends. But the powerful effect lingers.

The Scarlet Ibis continues through January 17.  prototypefestival.org

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