Un-American Opera Activities: A Wake or a Wedding

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The upside of last year’s New York City Opera shutdown is that greater visibility has come to the city’s venerable chamber opera companies—cultural gems that for years have modestly been producing the same sort of contemporary English-language operas that the large-scale NYCO championed. Founded in 1976, Encompass New Opera Theatre is one of the oldest of these and counts composers Virgil Thomson and Jack Beeson among its board’s founding members. As an American history buff and devotee of all forms of American musical theater, I went with enthusiasm to Encompass’s latest production, A Wake or a Wedding, a comic opera by Richard Pearson Thomas. The opera is set in Butte, Montana, in 1898—but one would never have known that.

Foregrounding distinctly American stories is what made such NYCO productions as Lizzie Borden, Paul Bunyan, Of Mice and Men, Dead Man Walking, Central Park, Margaret Garner and Little Women so appealing. But Thomas’s opera feels utterly European. Its farcical proceedings, revolving around a ridiculously vain bride whose copper king father dies on the eve of her wedding, could be happening anywhere, and one gets no sense of the waning Wild West. Most striking is how steeped the work’s witty libretto and musical parodies are in the traditions of European comic opera; Thomas’s influences are more Rossini than Menotti. And Stephen Carmody’s fabulously expressionistic set—an upscale Victorian parlor animated by sharp diagonals in the wall panels and floor—is more Fritz Lang than 19th-century Americana.

Though amusing, this opera is far from innovative and suffers from some odd structural choices. Why doesn’t the show end with the tickling, climactic large ensemble scene in which all the silly characters—the lepidopterist groom, the mysterious butler, a thieving housekeeper and the diva alto with her Egyptian sidekick—reveal their hidden secrets and identities? Instead of racing to a finish line that would send us home laughing, the show continues with a deadly aria by the innocent mother of the bride and a vaudevillian trio that would have been welcome much earlier in the evening. Structured essentially as one aria after another, Thomas’s work lacks variety of vocal texture. Missing are the lively small ensemble numbers that make Gilbert and Sullivan operettas so delightful: those trios and quintets in which varying voices intertwine and layer upon one another. It would have behooved Thomas, musically and dramatically, to incorporate more of the like throughout the opera, by devising groupings that would slyly hint at the characters’ veiled relationships.

But more problematic is this production’s failure to embody the abundant humor in Thomas’s writing. Every performer in the eight-member cast sings superbly, and the eight instrumentalists of the IONISATION New Music Group, under the able baton of Mara Waldman, interpret the bright, tuneful score with appropriate verve. Yet one wishes director Nancy Rhodes had exerted a firmer hand in establishing a coherent acting style supportive of the material. Only Joy Hermalyn, in the role of the diva hired to sing at the wedding, finds the exaggeration needed to play this kind of spoof.

It’s well-sung light entertainment, but don’t expect this little opera to elicit Rocky Mountain–size horselaughs.

A Wake or a Wedding plays at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan through November 16.

Photos courtesy of Monica Simoes

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