Opera Upper West gives contemporary twist to cellular double bill

Sun Jun 12, 2016 at 3:05 pm
Soprano Jin-Xiang Yu performed Poulenc's "La Voixe Humaine" for Opera Upper West Saturday night.

Soprano Jin-Xiang Yu performed Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” at Opera Upper West Saturday night.

The offbeat is becoming mainstream in New York’s opera world. This weekend’s performance by Opera Upper West, presented as part of New York OperaFest, was entitled “The Cell.” Played in the bordello-esque downstairs parlor of Cafe Tallulah near Lincoln Center, Saturday afternoon’s double-bill gave a pair of short operatic works incorporating telephonic communication a contemporary twist.

The first of these, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone, is a slight piece to begin with, and not at all enlivened by the “update.” During the overture, played with waltzing grace on an electric keyboard by Jeremy Chan, “Lucy” roams through the audience harrying listeners and asking them to pose for selfies with her–a cute trick, though not particularly illuminating.

To their credit, the two performers did their best to bring some degree of truth to their acting, playing a couple torn apart by the influence of a smartphone. Clayton G. Williams , in the role of Ben, tried repeatedly, in a rough baritone, to find the right moment to ask Lucy to marry him. Soprano Aine Hakamatsuka foiled him every time, bringing a sparkling chirp to her repeated interruptions, as she answered one phone call after another. But as earnestly as they strove to play the scene, there’s very little to the comedy beyond a superficial, winking frustration with the ringing of the phone–indeed, when the action ends as Ben finally pops the question via cell, it seems no one has really taken that frustration to heart.

The Telephone simply paled in comparison to Poulenc’s much more compelling La Voix Humaine. Whereas Menotti’s comedy-by-wire pokes light-hearted fun at the disruption of constant communication, Poulenc and Cocteau’s much darker work explores how the possibility of long-distance contact can in fact increase our feelings of isolation.

Jin-Xiang Yu was absolutely stunning as Elle, the opera’s only onstage character, who undergoes a total emotional breakdown over the course of the forty-minute piece. Her voice, a robust soprano with secure amber tone, is noteworthy in its own right, but even more striking was the way she employed it: Yu has a beautiful sense of phrasing and formidable French diction, allowing her to sing the role with a keen sense of understanding. As in the Menotti, Chan’s work as accompanist was superb, summoning about as much color as can possibly be coaxed out of an electronic keyboard.

Yu’s arc was beautifully crafted, and troubling to watch. As she sank further and further into depression, the phone seemed incidental, in a way, more a witness to than an agent of her despair and eventual suicide. In the end, this isn’t a piece about how tittering iPhones have ruined our lives–it’s about the fact that technology can do only so much to overcome the feeling of being alone.

“The Cell” will be repeated 7 p.m. Sunday at Cafe Tallulah. http://nyoperafest.com/site/la-voix-humaine-the-telephone/

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