Famed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe channeled her alter ego, dramatic tenor Blythely Oratonio in a one-act autobiographical drag show for Boston Lyric Opera Friday night. The quaint Royale Boston down in the Theater District made a perfect venue for this happening. Rose petals scattered throughout the house floor added romance to the ambience.
Singing drag artist Sapphire Cristal opened the show with a few flirtatious, funny and infectious lip-sync numbers. The high energy dancing, shaking, singing, lip synching, splitting and cartwheeling on and off stage immediately filled the theater with applause, laughter, and cheer. Cristal received tips from quite a few audience members, deservingly so.
Blythely Oratonio made her/him/them-self manifest in an all-black, extravagant, majestic King’s robe, an impressive beard, and a fancy crest on his head, in the company of his two “birdies.” Oratonio instantaneously won the crowd over with “Nessun Dorma” (Turandot). On the program, names of songs disguised themselves as something else: “Nessun Dorma,” for instance, as “Oratonio’s Insomnia.” This left some pondering, but allowed the performer freely to arrange/mix, shuttle back and forth between songs. Since the handout did not identify all pieces, this writer will attempt to list what he heard. During each number, a tune from the opera world partnered with one from the popular genre, arranged and performed as one.
With Dan Kazemi at the piano, Oratonio’s “Nessun Dorma” sounded incredibly resonant, emotional, and flowing. The piano reduction could have been fuller in harmony, taking a little away from what could have been a perfect opener.
After taking off the crest, Oratonio unbuttoned his robe while singing Queen’s “I want to break free” on top of the harmonies of “Nessun Dorma,” occasionally tapping back into the Italian lyrics. Seamless bars connected the two songs effectively, as Queen’s music filled the bill perfectly. Many similarities between the opera-esque style of Freddie Mercury and Oratonio’s incredibly sonorous, magnetic tone became apparent. The famous canzone, “La donna è mobile” (Verdi) also materialized in the midst of this number. Weaving in and out of the three songs, Oratonio seemed intent to jettison traditional opera, but by the number’s end where Queen’s tune bore the last laugh, Oratonio eventually “broke free.” “To hell with it!!!” shouted Oratonio. Led by music director Dan Kazemi (piano), The Fluffers—Jimmy Coleman (drums), Mike Ian (guitar), and Andrew Nelson (bass), — played a rock ballad in Queen, and groovy drums in the Verdi.
Oratonio sat on his throne and opined: “Here is the kind of opera that should be dead…inaccessible opera.” Oratonio took a sip from his enormous margarita glass and continued, “Opera written about a woman by a man 200 years ago, done in the same way, with the same costumes and with the same sets.” Oratonio flung back his lush, blonde hair. “So tonight, we are going to sing living, breathing opera.”
The next number, Kazemi’s arrangement of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” came in two sections. The first, closely resembled Springfield’s original; offbeat comping from the rhythm section supported its constant bass line. The second contextualized a young Oratonio, nailing the over-dotted rhythm and the dynamic swells in the baroque style, using Springfield’s tune. Played underneath Springfield tunes, Kazemi’s baroque scales and appoggiaturas accompanied Oratonio. Nelson even switched to the double bass, bringing forth the baroque sound. But in the bridge, rock and roll made a comeback when Ian ripped open the air, laying down an incredibly fiery guitar solo, but unfortunately, his only one of the night. All told, the juxtaposition of the two was funny as hell.
“The planet is getting hotter. Homes, cities, countries are engulfed in war. People are losing rights to their own bodies…..” Oratonio sat back into his throne and free associated…Well-said!
In Kazemi’s hands the transitions between “Send in the Clown” (A Little Night Music, Sondheim) and “Vesti La Giubba”(Pagliacci, Leoncavallo) became effortlessly natural, as if they had begun life as a single song. At the end, the motif in the string section of “Vesti La Giubba” the band played simultaneously on the guitar and piano to accompany Sondheim’s tune. This exquisite rearrangement of musical motifs left an unforgettable impression—a genius move.
“I first got to know opera a year after I majored in marijuana.” Oratonio man-spread on his throne and declared, addressing the tiny moments of death, something we’ve all had to let go of in our lives. “Could it be magic” (Barry Manilow) joined with “Recondita Armonia” (Tosca, Puccini). Oratonio belted out this number and demonstrated yet again his absolute command over the wonderfully radiant and breathtaking depth of his voice. In Puccini, “Recondita Armonia” features an intense string section; Kazemi’s version departed but a little from the original, but since the piano does not sustain like an orchestra, this arrangement sounded unoccupied and could have used more attention.
While wearing ridiculously looking flower props on their faces, flower girls Abigail Krawson and Jaimie Karkos opened the famous “Flower Duet” (Lakmé, Delibes) harmoniously, though at times the soprano was less audible.
“These flowers are for you. You have made us feel loved.” While Stephanie Blythe appeared for a brief moment through the form of a letter, each audience member was gifted a stem of carnation, in a heartwarming moment echoing the scattered roses on the house floor. Stephanie and the flower girls “ put acrossGentle Stranger” (Captain & Tennille), heavenly and enchantingly.
“Every opera queen knows Grindr!” A mix of “Friday I’m in Love” (The Cure), “Flower Duet” and “Belle Nuit” (The Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach) were sung. The overlapping of motifs and the fast-changing music, coherent and smooth, earned loud cheers from the crowd.
“It’s ok to breathe, sweat, and become different.” Oratonio announced before “Changes” (Bowie). Oratonio himself accompanied on the ukulele (beautifully played and a wonderful surprise!) This slower and much simpler arrangement nonetheless proved effective and irresistible.
“I invite you to hold on to your transitions, no matter how thorny they might be.” In the crowd-pleasing last number, Queen’s “We are the Champion,” Oratonio’s bottomless voice shined brightly through the camp.
Before the curtain closed, John Jarboe, the director and co-writer, joined Oratonio in a medley of encores: “Islands in the Stream” (Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton), and “Tonight” (Bernstein). Jarboe’s staging, from the flowers and costumes to the lavishly decorated music stand and Oratonio’s throne contributed much to the success of this night.
Amidst the flowers and the dazzling neon lights, could some tune have escaped the writer’s ears? It matters not, since this one-night-only show left the sated crowd smiling. When Oratonio next manifests himself over the dark moon, fans should be there.