nicholas fox

Breathing fresh air

Portland Opera’s ‘American Quartet’ of one-act operas

An American Quartet sold out–and for good reasons. Portland Opera’s seven-performance black-box show, which opened Feb. 9 at Hampton Opera Center and closed Feb. 22, was witty, short, well performed, utterly charming, and for once the spotlight shone on American opera composers. The entire program, sung in English with projected captions, lasted about 95 minutes along with a 15-minute intermission. That’s a long way from a four-hour night with Wagner.

Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in The Telephone. Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.
Emilie Faiella as Lucy and Geoffrey Schellenberg as Ben in Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘The Telephone.’ Photo by Kate Szrom/Portland Opera.

These four one-acts, ranging in length from 10 to 26 minutes, provided a sharply tuned showcase for the up-and-coming Portland Opera Resident Artists, each of whom sang multiple parts.

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Philip Glass’s music makes a perfect match to Kafka’s provocative story in Portland Opera’s potent production 

By BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Why on earth do we go to an opera? Great singing? Check. Realistic, affecting acting? Check. Innovative sets and staging ? Check. Uplifting and hopeful story leaving you with peace, happiness, and lightness of spirit.? Hmmm…uh, not so much, when the story is Philip Glass’s 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

From the get-go, the plot is studded with emotional downers, with no end in sight. It features, in a nutshell, a sentry who failed to salute an superior and is condemned – without his knowledge or ability to defend himself – to death on a contrived (and thankfully non-existent) mechanical apparatus that imprints the letters of a man’s crime on his flesh. Meanwhile, an Officer oversees the torture and a Visitor drops in to observe. Soooo… it’s a grand night for singing, eh? 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Yes, indeed, because it’s the Portland Opera and its production of In the Penal Colony, which runs through August 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s intimate studio theater, is a stunner.

But c’mon, this is not the only or last opera to get a bit grim. See Verdi: young Princess sealed in a tomb; father murders daughter in a sack. See Puccini: heroine dies of consumption, and so on. You see? Kafka’s grim, absurdist tale, void of heroes or redemption plot can exist comfortably in the opera genre – thanks to Philip Glass.

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Dancing in the Underworld

The movement's uninspired, but Portland Opera's production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" is musically magnificent. By all means go.

With its glorious melodies , menacing harmonies, and inclusion of music for dances that actually drive the plot rather than functioning as interludes giving singers a chance to catch their breath, Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Eurydice has inspired some extremely distinguished   20th and 21st century choreographers.   George Balanchine did a radical version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, in a conceptual collaboration with painter Pavel Tchelitchew, that put the singers in the pit and the dancers in the air. Forty years later, having choreographed to Gluck’s music several times in between, Balanchine made the beautiful Chaconne as a vehicle for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. In 1953 Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed it for Covent Garden. Mark Morris staged it first in 1986 for the Handel and Haydn Society, and in 2007 directed and choreographed a modern-dress production for the Met, with the chorus dressed as characters from history placed on a platform above the stage, commenting, so to speak, on the action taking place below them.

A dance scene in Portland Opera’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Because of this history, and my own longtime affection for Gluck’s score (I’ve been listening to this gorgeous music since I was fifteen), I was delighted to learn that the Portland Opera was performing this version of the Orpheus story for the first time (they did Philip Glass’s in 2009), and at the Newmark Theater at that, vastly preferable to the all too spacious Keller Auditorium. The knowledge that Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Peter Franc and OBT soloist Katherine Monogue, lovely dancers both of them, would perform added to the attraction.

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Portland Opera’s ‘The Elixir of Love’: Adina Get Your Gun

Wild West production of Donizetti's opera in intimate Newmark Theatre finds the magic formula

by DARYL BROWNE

The anticipation of the Wild West set and costumes was the buzz prior to the downbeat of Portland Opera’s The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti. Donizetti is a constant to Portland Opera audiences over the company’s 50 years – sixteen productions of five different operas. This is Elixir’s fourth appearance. Stick with the original formula of the magic Elixir? Not this time around; this production, inspired by James de Blasis “sagebrush” setting at Cincinnati Opera in 1968, was re-imagined by Ned Canty, who directs here as well, with set designed locally by Curt Enderle. Change can also be exciting, reinvigorating. Portland Opera certainly hopes so — in several ways.

Portland Opera's Elixir of Love continues at Newmark Theatre. Photo: Cory Weaver

Portland Opera’s production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love continues at Newmark Theatre. Photo: Cory Weaver.

In Saturday night’s performance at Portland’s relatively intimate Newmark Theatre, the curtain rose to a vibrant set, an energetic cowgirl (Adina) and a disarming rube (Nemorino) who bumbles on stage and immediately falls in love with said cowgirl. From that moment on, in acting and singing, these two artists took charge of each scene in which they appeared.

It is primarily their story. He desperately in love with she. She not convinced. He believes his “answer” lies in a love potion. She becomes enamored of another. End of Act I.

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