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Vaughan Williams and Orth Picture Death in the Family

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center for the Arts
05/02/2019 -  & May 4, 5*, 2019
Ralph Vaughan Williams : Riders to the Sea
Rene Orth : Empty the House

Merissa Beddows (Nora), Lindsey Reynolds (Cathleen), Sophia Mackawa (Maurya), Patrick Wilhelm (Bartley). Hannah Klein (A Woman), Sophia Hunt (Faith), Patrick Wilhelm (Paul), Tiffany Townsend (Brenda)
Curtis Opera Theatre Orchestra, Daniela Candillari (Conductor)
Mary Birnbaum (Stage Director), Grace Laubacher (Scenic Designer), Amanda Seymour (Costume Designer), Ashuman Bhatia (Lighting Designer)

(© Courtesy Curtis)

The Curtis Opera Theatre made a sage decision to pair one act operas by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Rene Orth. Orth is a graduate of Curtis and the current composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia. Both composers use rich soundscapes based in nature. Vaughan Williams pictures the cruel sea surrounding the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland. It is here that J.M. Synge wrote his play Riders to the Sea. Vaughan Williams lifted his words almost verbatim from Synge’s and their lilt and sad loveliness very much inform the music. Mark Campbell joined Orth to create a libretto based on work she had initially done at Curtis.

Vaughan Williams writes of the loss of the last of two sons in a household of eight men, all of whom have been taken by the sea. Merissa Beddows as Nora and Olivia Smith as Cathleen hope to protect their mother from the discovery of a fifth son’s water-worn garments before her last son, Bartley, heads for a village fair on his grey horse. Sophie Mackawa, the grief-filled mother, cannot stop Bartley from leaving amidst an impending storm. Fatefully, she sings of a vision she has had of Michael, who is still presumed alive, a ghost riding the grey horse and Bartley dead too. Mackawa sings in a lovely, even tone. The multiple deaths of loved ones have worn her down. Their memories are hung as crosses on the wall of the family cottage.

In Empty the House, Brenda, the matriarch, is moving out of the family home and on to a new life. Her daughter, Faith, returns after a ten year absence, precipitated by Brenda’s rejection of her AIDs-riven son. Brenda had turned Paul away when he came home for help, and Faith has not forgiven her.

The scenic design moves seamlessly from one home to another, from the island seaside cottage to a bare kitchen in Houston, Texas. Flexible walls both contain the action and open it up to the audience. Above the set, at the back of the stage, a threatening ocean hammers away above the Aran cottage. A stream of rain backs up the Houston kitchen.

Nature for Vaughan Williams is very much the elements. For Orth, it is human nature and its foibles. Both composers use rich instrumentation to color their portraits of a setting. Vaughan Williams sets the Synge play with great care for the cadence of speech. Musically, almost the entire span is consumed by thematic lines and harmonic progressions rising and falling by thirds. At the climax, Maurya enters to bear witness to her son's death, and the music takes off. Curiously, it is Faith’s final expression of a sort of hope that also gives us the most wrenching and lovely lines in the Orth opera.

Orth’s blending of electronic music and the orchestra is remarkably successful. You would only know that the pings which signal a heartbeat and the rain drops were electronic because their source was nearby. Many phrases rip and rush, emphasizing the urgent matters to be resolved before this house and its history close forever. Punctuations at the top of a line shape the orchestral drama. Crashing plates and banging doors blend with more conventional instrumentation. We are unquestionably in a world of tension, of threat and of misunderstanding.

Tiffany Townsend as Brenda is a grand presence, singing to suggest her ability to persist and also slowly letting her sense of pain as she permits herself to entertain the choices she has made.

Curtis is a fixture not only in Philadelphia but in the international world of music. Its graduates include Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and so many others. Its commitment to music of the highest order was evident at these Perelman Theater productions in Philadelphia.

Susan Hall



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