Guerilla Opera premiered composer Gabriele Vanoni’s and librettist Ewa Chrusciel’s new chamber opera Ellis last night at Boston’s Old South Meeting House. Once again, Guerilla innovated in the chamber opera field.
Selling the production as an all-encompassing experience, the Guerilla Opera staff “processed” each member of the audience, assigning them into A, B, and C groups with paper badges as though each of us was entering the US for the first time. From there, the three groups separated into different parts of the hall, usually centering on where one of the main scenes occurred. Adding to the spatialization effect, each of the scenes before the immigrants’ imagined arrivals took place in different divisions of the Meeting House balcony. Projections on the ceiling or on the Meeting House pulpit heightened each scene, helping us, in the absence of sets, to imagine being in a particular space. A few technical hiccups near the end of the show caused the computer desktop background and file-selection window to display. That made suspension of disbelief a bit challenging.
The opera tells how the Irish Jew Manny (tenor Taka Komagata), the Italian arranged-bride-to-be Maria (soprano Bizhou Chang), and German-Jewish refugee Raysel (soprano and Artistic Director Aliana de la Guardia,) leave their home countries and travel to the US. Manny takes a job working alongside his brother Lou. Maria is forced into an arranged marriage with family friend Joseph Galetta. With unborn baby in tow, Raysel flees a refugee camp and leaves behind a camp guard (implied to be the father) with whom she fell in love.
Maria and Manny share a dance on the ship the night before arrival, which happens to be Maria’s birthday. Raysel arrives at Ellis Island to find her father sick and disabled; deciding that she cannot take care of both him and her baby, she gives her new baby girl up for adoption. Manny meets with Lou who offers him employment at “the Edison plant.” Two days later both are fired—Manny for being Jewish.[i] Maria ends her story contemplating an arranged marriage.
The story does not strive to be big, instead focusing entirely on characters and their own small stories. The storyline might have imagined more connections among the three immigrants, however. Raysel’s story seemed especially unrelated to the others, as she never meets Manny or Maria.
The three main vocalists carved out distinctive spaces for themselves. Komagata, particularly lyrical in his role, made soaring lines out of declamations. Chang had a clear grasp of how to shape her solo; it approached the intensity of an aria. Her speaking sections felt a little stilted and stiff. With the broadest vocal color palette of the three, de la Guardia gave Raysel a deeply emotional and sympathetic portrayal, especially during her depiction of the decision to give up her child. Baritone Brian Church had comparatively limited stage time in the minor roles of the Guard and Lou, but it was refreshing to have a lower range voice on stage when he did appear. Andros Zins-Browne played Raysel’s father, mostly a dance-based role, but in the Epilogue he momentarily joined the other vocalists in a small chorus. His dancing combined with some shadow effects to appropriate and engaging effect.
Typical of Guerilla productions, the small instrumental ensemble this time encompassed violinist Lilit Hartunian, cellist (doubling mandolin briefly) Stephen Marotto, saxophonist Philip Staudlin, and percussionist Mike Williams. Vanoni provided live electronics to support the quartet throughout. Each instrumentalist (minus Williams) had a shining moment as a soloist in the first three scenes. Extended techniques abounded. The accompaniment for the scenes came across as far more texturally responsive than merely accompanimental. Combined with the electronics, the opera felt subdued and personal. It worked for the subject matter, as the story itself is not big either.
Guerilla Opera has a second and final night of Ellis at Old South Meeting House tonight, October 3, 2021. If you enjoy chamber opera, and something designed to be personal and slice-of-life, you should try to go. Ellis turns another page in Guerilla Opera’s history of telling stories of real people that speak to our shared experience.
Ian Wiese is a doctoral candidate at New England Conservatory of Music, studying composition with John Heiss.
[i] Was this a NYC Consolidated Edison Power Plant, which might be the case, or Thomas Alva Edison’s Orange, NJ factory? Despite his personal anti-Semitism, Edison, accepted Jews in high positions within his company. Plus, “the subway” in NYC does not go to Orange, NJ, half way down the state and far from NYC. The “Edison” reference is rather vague.