Opera up close and personal: Intimate TCO double bill charms

Reviewed by Sherri Strichman

We stepped back in time last night (Feb. 18) as Tri-Cities Opera presented an evening of 1950s fun, charm and drama. The double bill of one-act operas, Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, left the audience more than satisfied.

Right from the start, we had vendors in great ’50s clothing and hairstyles (credit: Jana Kucera, costume plot designer, and Danielle Baker, makeup and hair designer) interacting with the audience as they carried their hanging trays of snacks. They sang ’50s advertisements adapted by Nicolas Slonimsky, whose Five Advertising Songs are satiric in text and also in music. I caught Rachmaninoff’s C# minor prelude in “And Then the Doctor Told Her” (about a laxative) and French impressionism in “Snowy-white” (about sheets).

The productions were staged in the almost-round with the orchestra on the small stage behind.  Scenic designer AmarA*jk created a square raised platform with an intermediary step between it and the floor.  Director Carleen Graham made the most of all the space in the Tri-Cities Opera Center in Binghamton, using the aisles between sections as well as the central raised playing area, steps and the stage itself.  The singers performed well to all sides. My only question would be about the sight lines from the flat-on-the-floor seating.  I was in the front, so I had a great view of everything, but the seating was tight, and I wondered how comfortable someone in row 3 would have been.

The singers were a mixed group of TCO resident artists, guest artists and members of Binghamton University Masters in Music opera program, and all were well up to the demands of the music and the drama.

The Telephone is a short comedy about Ben (Patrick Jones), who is trying to propose to Lucy (Abigail Rethwisch) before going on a trip. He is hampered by the interruptions of her telephone — in the days when one actually had to pick up the phone to find out who was calling. I wondered if any of these singers had actually used a rotary telephone other than as a prop. The singing was good; the acting was charming.

Trouble in Tahiti provides more angst as it chronicles a day in the life of a suburban couple having trouble communicating. Jake Stamatis gave a wonderful performance as Sam, showing the different sides of his personality through relationships at home with his wife, Dinah; at the office with invisible clients and secretary, and at the gym, clutching his all-important trophy for winning a handball tournament.

With his great monologue (wearing only undies and towel), he painted a picture of a man’s man, thrilled with the hunt and the competition, yet later, as he is about to enter his house, he is confused and trapped by the needs of a wife and child. In the intimate setting of TCO’s recently renovated Savoca Hibbit Hall black-box theater, Stamatis connected with the audience at all times.

Mary Beth Nelson gave a stunning performance as Dinah, a wife who entered her marriage with such hope, only to find emptiness. In “In the Garden,” she really laid it all out there, all the emotions, only feet from the audience.  She took some risks, but they worked out beautifully. Oh, and did I mention that her voice is an instrument of great beauty?

Stacey Geyer, Quinn Bernegger and Patrick Jones — the Jazz Trio — acted as a Greek chorus with lightness of sound and laid-back close harmony. Geyer, who is in the MM program at BU, has an especially beautiful voice and an understated but welcome sense of humor in her singing.

Throughout, the orchestra, conducted by Warren Jones, was a full partner in the action.

Three performances remain in the run. Is it worth the price?  Yes!

IF YOU GO: Performances are at 7:30 p.m. today (Friday, Feb. 19) and at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Feb. 20-21) at the Tri-Cities Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. For tickets, call 772-0400 or visit www.tricitiesopera.com.

 

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