The City of God is an ambitious new opera written, directed and conducted by Josh Armenta who also takes a leading role in the piece.
The Shop at Fort Fringe might possibly be the worst venue in which The City of God could be staged. Set in the round with the computer generated orchestration blasting from the back of the shop made hearing voices problematic for those of us seated in front rows.
There was also a problem with the lighting such that various lights would flash on and off sporadically for no apparent reason other than to distract. And fitting eight characters into that tiny space with necessary furniture and props was a little like staging The Music Man in a closet.
Josh Armenta is clearly a talented musician and composer. However, writing, directing and taking a leading role (and also conducting the chorus well within audience site lines when not on stage) might be a bit too much to ask of anyone. I am going to assume that this was a conscious choice on Armenta’s part since he was able to recruit some capable performers for all the roles except the one he saved for himself. That assumption being made, I am going to label it clearly as a mistake on his part. As ambitious and promising as this opera is, it could have benefited greatly from a lot more collaboration and a lot less control on Armenta’s part.
The story of David Koresh, his cult of Branch Davidians and the siege that took place at their compound in Waco, Texas very definitely qualifies as material suitable for opera. Opera loves high drama and where it can’t find it will invent it. The plots for the world’s great operas are notoriously convoluted, character’s action lines are badly motivated if at all and it’s really all about the music. The stories are the skinny threads that masters such as Puccini, Mozart, Rossini and Verdi hang their majestic music.
This story has all the drama built into it with a suitably mad character (always good to have a person driven insane in an opera – usually a woman because madness suits the soprano voice much better).
How was the music? So, so. Armenta has an ear for blending seemingly atonal vocal lines with very lyrical accompaniment and sometimes the other way around. At the very least, it was interesting. The story is told mostly as a recitative in the form of phone calls between Koresh, the self-annointed Christ figure, and a beleaguered FBI agent attempting to stave off an inevitable catastrophe.
I had the sense that much of it was taken directly from FBI transcripts. If not, Armenta has penned some very realistic dialogue. However, there is only so much you can do with telephone conversation in an opera even if it is broken up to include flashbacks that make for suitable arias and duets.
In fact, the most interesting music both as written and performed involved a Greek Chorus of Davidian Women (Julia Scherer-Hoock, Gloriana Maria Chaves, Katharina Acosta and Lisa M. Cobham respectively). Their voices blended nicely and lent real power to key parts of the story. Armenta seemed to be more at ease writing this part of the opera than he did with the various arias and the aforementioned recitative.
Alexander Wolniak, a professional singer with a pretty impressive resume, fights his way through the lead role. It is damnably difficult singing and while Wolniak clearly has a voice with some nice quality to it, this role does not show it off. He has some “moments” when in the throes of an ecstatic vision, his strengths as a singer match what Armenta has written, but for the most part, he is fighting a losing battle.
John T. Danley as the FBI agent and Armenta himself as Koresh’s right hand man do not contribute much in the way of vocal quality to the piece. Danley is a tall, slender, earnest, young man with a powerful voice. It just isn’t very pleasant to the ear. Armenta himself simply has no singing voice to speak of and should have known better than to cast himself in a pivotal role.
Things were getting pretty grim near the end, both in terms of the story line and the quality of the opera when something rather magical happened. Once the decision is finally made to tear gas the compound and force an ending to the siege, real, live believable and compelling opera breaks out. Danley begins repeating the FBI’s message to Koresh and the Davidians that they are releasing tear gas and it is not an assault. And if they fire, their fire will be returned. Powerful stuff driven by a building drum beat that is unmistakably warlike.
Koresh joins in counterpoint with his own Jesus complex in full bloom, then Armenta as the tormented believer who doesn’t believe strongly enough to die for the cause, and eventually the Greek chorus — until all join together in a powerful, yet very nicely melodic crescendo that brings us through to the inevitable cataclysmic ending. The less said about the end, the better.
With a more conducive venue and some decent scenic and lighting effects, I’m sure it would have been much better. As it was, it ended more with a whimper than a bang. But the music and the singing leading up to it generated real emotion and showed strong promise for what might be.
The City of God has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012, at The Shop at Fort Fringe, 607 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
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Larry rates this 2 out of a possible 5.