Thursday, June 12, 2014

Opera Theater Oregon entertainingly mashes film and opera in "Giasone and the Argonauts"

Daniel Buchanan as Sole \
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
Opera Theater Oregon has a colorful history of adapting operatic works to silver screen, often with tongue and cheek results. OTO’s latest offering, “Giasone and the Argonauts,” uniquely melded the music of Francesco Cavalli’s 1649 opera “Giasone” with the Ray Harryhausen’s 1965 film “Jason and the Argonauts.” The result was a wry yet dramatic hybrid, and the performance that I experienced last Thursday (June 5th) at the Hollywood Theatre was an absolute hoot.

To get a grip on “Giasone and the Argonauts,” you have to understand that it didn’t follow the music or the story line of Cavalli’s “Giasone,” but rather, conductor Erica Melton arranged the music and rewrote the text so that it would match up with the storyline in “Jason and the Argonauts.” This happened, because Cavalli’s opera has four main characters and is wrapped around the love mixer of Giasone and Medea, and “Jason and the Argonauts” has eleven main characters, and loosely follows the legend of how they attained the Golden Fleece with the help of Medea.

Catherine Olson as Amore \
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
Because I was a bit confused about all this, I wrote to Melton and she confirmed my hunches, adding “Much of the text had to be changed and many of the recitatives adapted or re-written. I also used music from Cavalli's opera “Ercole Amante” and Monteverdi's opera “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” for some of the action scenes.” Considering the scope of work that Melton did in order to line up the music, using a chamber orchestra consisting of theorbo, harp, guitar, steel guitar, violoncello, percussion, two violins, and a trumpet, the score was quite a challenging undertaking.

The prologue was proclaimed with stately demeanor by Daniel Buchanan, who took the regal persona of Sole (aka Zeus). This was followed by an overture during which the main characters came on stage and did humorous poses, all the while showing off the exaggerated costumes that were created by Useless Woman art collective. After the cast members took their place on stage, next to and just behind the orchestra, the film began to roll, and we were underway with the original sound of the film turned off and all of the performers turned on. Some of the swords and sandals film was humorous because of cultural differences, but everyone in the audience became very engaged when the stop-motion creatures, like the harpies and statue Talos, wracked havoc.

Stacey Murdock as Giasone /
Photo credit - Martin Stabler
A strong cast of principals anchored this production with expressive singing. Stacey Murdock created a manly Giasone. Hannah Penn countered with a seductive Medea. Catherine Olson’s pleaded eloquently as Amore. Daniel Buchanan reigned thoughtfully as Sole. The urgency in voce of Ian Jos√© Ramirez in multiple roles (Acasto, Hyllo, Phineo, Guard), the basement-rattling gravitas of Deac Guidi (Ercole and Aeetes) as well as Andr√© Flynn (Pelias and Argus), and the plaintive lament of Hsin Yi Lin as Aphrodite added to the enjoyment.

A quartet of artists from Unchained Productions created a variety of evocative sound effects, such as fire, wind, sword fights. Their timing with the film was impeccable.

The chamber orchestra, directed by Erica Melton, featured the expressive playing of the Theorbo by Hideki Yamaya. For much of the evening, the sound was distinctly Baroque, but near the end it was modified by an amplified steel guitar (Chris Gabriel), which was equally pleasant yet different.

Hannah Penn as Medea
/ Photo credit - Martin Stabler
“Gaisone and the Argonauts” was a blast, but it makes me wonder what OTO might be able to do if they had enough money to stage its own version of the story without using the film. That might be even better.

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