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On the Patricide of the Street

New York
Church of St. Gregory the Great, 144 West 90th Street
10/01/2009 -  & Oct. 2, 3, 4, 2009
Martin Halpern: Purgatory (based on the play by William Butler Yeats) – The Death of Oedipus (based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus) (Both chamber operas are world premieres)

Jim Trainor (Old Pedlar/Oedipus), Bobby Underwood (Young Pedlar/Theban Officer), Yvonne Bill (Antigone), Aram Tchobanian (First Citizen), Joshua South (Second Citizen)
Earl Buys (Pianist), Martin Halpern (Music Director)
Hunter Kaczorowski (Costume Design), Ethan Kaplan (Lighting Design)

M. Halpern (© M. Halpern)

Martin Halpern is a polymath–drama, opera, teaching–whose works turn up at the most unusual places. After more than 80 productions in the Thalia, the East Village’s Theater for the New City, and the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse, he premiered two of his many chamber operas in the St. Gregory the Great Church on the Upper West Side last night.

The audience for the opening night was sparse (competition came from chamber operas at Weill and of course the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall), but his vision was audacious enough that enthusiasm was high. After all, taking W.B. Yeats and Sophocles in one fell swoop is not for timid composers. Equally audacious was playwright Halpern’s option to change the conclusion of the Yeats play and bring Oedipus at Colonus down to 30 minutes, without the usual chorus.

But Mr. Halpern had his thematic reasons. Both work deal with familial murder most foul. Yeats’ Purgatory shows a man telling his son that his father has been killed, and he then he falls on his own son’s knife. (In the original, the father kills the son.)

Oedipus of course speaks of the shame that the once proud king had mated with his mother after inadvertently killing his father. At Colonus he himself dies.

Musically, his one-acters have a certain lucidity and the attempts at tension. The latter was sporadically successful, so neither opera succeeded in its goal. Purgatory, with its two characters of father and son (the ghost of the mother was eliminated) could have been one crescendo until the death at the end. But Mr. Halpern chose to have a single piano motif, a skipping set of jumpy staccato chords played up and down the scale. While counterpointed against the melodic lines of the singers, the piano role was simply monotonous, blocking out the tension and even the father’s single aria.

Oedipus (here called The Death of Oedipus) had more characters and more interest. Nothing lyrical, nothing which we could whistle on the way to the subway, but at least an attempt at harmony. In fact, the Two Citizens of Colonus–one tall and thin, the other short and pudgy–could have had Tweedledum/Tweedledee personae. Of course they were more serious, and they actually began some harmonic lines together which, alas, were always truncated. I couldn’t help thinking of Amahl’s Three Kings, whose songs in the same musical language, were so memorable, so elegant.)

The productions of both were superb. No backdrop except the church altar, but the Greek costumes were authentic. Purgatory had a pair of old pedlars (the English/Irish spelling) who looked ragged enough.

As for the singing, Jim Trainor, in both lead roles, has a mighty baritone, which resonated firmly in the low-ceilinged church. His son (also the Theban officer), tenor Bobby Underwood, was equally rich vocally, while the only woman, Yvonne Bill, showed honest soprano emotion at the end of her work.

The two citizens, Aram Tchobanian and Joshua South, had the advantage of real dramatic change, both in music and character. Neither were “heroic” baritones”, but both, in their fleeting duets and ethical meditations, gave honesty and vibrant substance to Mr. Halpern’s challenging essays.

Harry Rolnick



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