Saturday, June 18, 2016

OperaBend's world premiere of Via Lactea shows what a small-city opera can do

Emily Pulley
Last weekend OperaBend's truly audacious undertaking Via Lactea came to fruition. A world premiere by Bend author and librettist Ellen Waterston with music by Rebecca Oswald, it told the tale of a middle-aged woman's inward and outward journey as she seeks to reinvigorate her life by walking the ancient Camino de Santiago, (known in English as St. James' Way), a pilgrimage that has existed since the middle ages.

The vocal talent lined up was top notch; soprano Emily Pulley sang the role of the main character Peregrina. Pulley (who, like the librettist actually completed a pilgrimage on the Camino) infused Peregrina with an absolutely convincing and multi-faceted depth. Her singing was marvelous--clear, powerful, always emotionally and musically insightful and with pure diction. In a production with ups and downs in some key facets, Pulley's performance was the one sure thing throughout.

Also spectacular was mezzo Hannah Penn as Omniscient, a strange, phantasmic character who reveals insights and serves as a sort of guide to Peregrina. Penn's singing was as fine as I've ever heard it, which is saying something. Soprano Jocelyn Claire Thomas as Peggy was also noteworthy; she has a fine, bright soprano and lent the right verve and spunkiness to a character that could have been annoying and trite in the wrong hands.

Oswald's score was ambitious and by-and-large very engaging; unpretentious and true to the task. Oswald has some real skill as a composer. The first act was largely through-sung, featuring small, repetitive phrases that were sometimes slightly reminiscent of Phillip Glass.  In the hands of the fine principals the score came alive and revealed its imaginative nature. The text underlay was part of the fascination: not always predictable, and featuring humorous and original syncopations.  The choruses were the weakest part of the musical writing. Mostly present in the second half, they were often (though not always) block chord recitations that lost the lyrical charm of the writing for single voices.  The problem with the choruses lay not entirely with the composer, but more on that later.

The libretto and story were definitely a mixed bag. I found myself engrossed in Peregrina's story immediately. She was a very sympathetic character: a woman at a crossroads in her life, searching for something to give it meaning again. We find out much later that her husband has died, though it is clear from her soul searching that this is not the reason, nor maybe even the larger part of the reason that she is on a quest to rediscover herself in some fashion.

The libretto had some fine moments: "I have phoenixed before, and now again," says Peregrina as she prepares for her journey.  "How far must I go to come home?" she asks herself at another point. When she leaves on the journey and encounters her fellow pilgrims, there is a fascinating chorus where the pilgrims pace the stage in complex patterns, each revealing why they have come on the journey. Lest it take itself too seriously, the scene wherein the pilgrims bed down for the evening contains a moment where the lusty German tourist pre-apologizes to his compatriots because he tends to "snore and fart" when he sleeps. One of the finest moments of the production was Penn as the Stork, a symbol of good fortune along the Camino. She managed to be precise, avian, singing about hunting green frogs. Her modal singing was powerful and pure right down into a striking contralto range, and the presence of three dancers added to the pastoral yet somehow spooky scene.

Camino Woman, another fantastic character, who represents women inasmuch as they have been ignored, mistreated and otherwise abused by male-dominated religions over the millennia, was sung by Jeanne Wentworth. She and Peregrina provided a much-needed tongue-in-cheek moment when, upon first meeting and Peregrina begins waxing poetic about Camino Woman being the 'sacred feminine, ' the pure representation of the virgin Mary, etc, Camino Woman says 'let's not go too far' and they share a laugh.

And it was unfortunate that the story didn't take its own advice, because in the second half the story itself--Peregrina's voyage--largely became lost in a series of confusing choruses that were often symbolic or metaphoric moments that lay without the actual happenings of the journey along the Camino, intermixed with events such as Peregrina fighting off wild dogs, sharing a kiss with a fellow wanderer, and confronting the corrupt (though hilarious) priest at the Santiago de Compostela cathedral.

The choruses featured groups of singers in various guises quite often standing stock-still in groups declaiming at the audience, like too much voice-over narrative in a movie. There were a few (maybe a few too many) dancing numbers, which the orchestra sometimes struggled with and no one on stage really seemed to believe in. Many of the choruses felt as musically uninspiring as the narrative technique, though one chorus, 'Cold Mountain,' did stand out as a particularly fine one. It felt as though Peregrina's story got lost, degenerating into so much quasi-metaphysical argle-bargle--stock ideas like 'life always gives you what you need,' and 'you are what you hoped to be all along,' and other similar nonsense. Philosophical considerations aside, the second half was confusing and over-long--all the points had been made a half-hour before the music ended, and it felt like the second half was largely about making these spiritual points and less about a woman's journey, which is what fascinated me at the beginning.

So kudos to OperaBend! It was a daring venture and despite some warts, a deserving enterprise and an enjoyable evening. It takes a lot of chutzpah and incredible amounts of talent and hard work to premier an opera anywhere, and in a smaller community like Bend even more so. Having been a part of the Bend art music scene many years ago (including a role as a singing waiter in Juniper Opera's La Vie Parisienne), it was with a certain sense of home-town pride that I watched Via Lactea unfold. It's great to see how far opera in Central Oregon has come in the intervening years, and no doubt OperaBend will take it to exciting places in the future.


Avi said...

We were there and totally enjoyed the performance. Your description of the second half put words to my struggle with it. That said, many productions are fine tuned after their first presentation to a live audience and I am confident that this will happen here. We look forward to seeing it again in the future.

Lorin Wilkerson said...

I agree Avi. With some fine tuning, tightening up and (in the case of the second half) some more succinct staging, this is a piece that is well worthy of being heard far afield.