in: Reviews

May 10, 2009

Juventas Presents Two Chamber Operas

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One of the problems that young composers face in writing an opera is the problem of performance. Getting one’s work staged is a key step in understanding the fussy creature that is musical theater. The Juventas (YOO-vin-tas) new music ensemble focuses on young composers and on Sunday, May 10, they focused on two new chamber operas, at the Cambridge family YMCA.

Matthew Vest’s The Hourglass adapted Danilo Kiš’s book of the same name. The book is a fictionalized account of the Axis occupation of the former Yugoslavia and what happened to the local Jewish population. In operatic form, the story was told through four unnamed characters. The music and action were highly contrapuntal. Multiple scenes occurred at the same time. Some of the instrumentalists (a piano quintet accompanied) occasionally entered into the action. The goal appeared to be the portrayal of chaos, but it ended up being literal instead of depicted. No particular elements drew the eye or ear. The density of the score made it difficult to hear any of the text. Or as the composer indicated in his notes: “The idea that one must analyze in order to truly understand has focused this piece and allowed me as the composer to fractionate the text and to create music that must be discovered in a similar fashion.” In which case, a copy of the score (or at least information on obtaining one – the composer does not appear to have a website) would have been a courteous addition to the program.

Erin Huelskamp’s “The Year of the Serpent” was modeled after Hong Kong kong fu movies. It told the story of a young woman offered as a virgin sacrifice to a serpent who terrorized her village. Rather than succumb, she slayed him, earning freedom for her and the spirits of past sacrifices. This show was one of abundance: a flashback scene, a fight scene/vocal contest with simulated slow-motion/wire effects, Amy Horing’s dog marionette (the heroine’s faithful companion), Evertt Hoag’s vibrant costumes, and a half-a-dozen flower arrangements occupying a corner of the stage. The music associated different characters with different genres: pentatonic chinoiserie for Li Chi, steamy jazz for the serpent. The choices were a bit familiar, but fit into the opera’s campy vibe. The two leads deserve special mention for their performances. Sara Ann Mitchell gave Li Chi a comic girlishness and a clearly articulated arc. José Torres-Cooban’s Serpent combined seduction and sleaze. Everyone on stage seemed to be having a blast.

The evening as a whole must have been a tremendous undertaking for Juventas (three nights of two operas with independent casts and crews). They deserve a lot of credit for putting the program together and pulling it off as smoothly as they did. I hope this isn’t the last such evening they present.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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