A Family Reunion, a mesmerizing modern opera by the late Christopher Patton, a composer of avant-garde new music, hits home where the heart is, but doesn’t hit you over the head with guilt trips for benign neglect. The libretto written by William Moses is about a debilitating illness that comes uninvited and raises the question: “Who’s going to take care of mom?”
Yet the first act for the most part focuses on the extended family. How does Alzheimer disease wear down the caregivers? What’s the collateral damage?
Crickets are chirping loudly. Think of Philip Glass’ music and you’ve got the sound. Musically directed by a master of multi-tasking, Paul Leavitt plays the grand piano with his right hand, while standing up to left-handedly conduct a string quintet of two violins, a viola, cello and string bass. Patton’s music is atonal, repetitive, unnerving and difficult. Yet the singers and instrumentalists are excellent, technically secure, and perform with fervor.
Lights come up on bewildered Alma Green, (Laura Lewis), in bed, reminiscing in “Night Prayer,” about her adult children, in the evening of her life. “Now I lay me down to sleep./I hope all my children will come home to be with me.” A lyric soprano, Lewis, who is well-known to In Series audiences, delivers a well-modulated, deeply moving portrait of an aging woman’s growing sense of dislocation and panic.
As directed by William Moses, who also wrote the libretto and lyrics, the long legato-lines and nicely-paced recitatives flow like conversation into the polyphonic, “Hurry Home Now,” sung by the traveling daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. The center stage entrance of a mysterious stranger, Ollie Sr., a role sung by Nephi Sanchez, in white tailored suit and tie (costumes by Donna Breslin), arouses our curiosity.
Soprano Anastasia Robinson presents a warmly humanized, sympathetic Ruth, the unmarried, stuck-at-home, sardonic, oldest daughter, who has been the caregiver and is flat-out burnt out. “Someone will have to take over…..I can’t do it anymore,” Ruth sings in “Boiling Over.”
The clues congeal as Alma sings the dissonant, “Go Say Hello,” asking her arriving grandchildren and brood to greet their father, Ollie Sr., who in reality is dead. In the greeting process, she mixes up the identities of her grandsons, Milo, the fun-loving hitchhiker, sung by Brian Shaw, and Jason, an impressive nine-year-old, Alessandro Topa. But it is when Alma clings to her gay son, Ollie Jr., the superb bass, Sean Pflueger, and sings of her disappointed dreams, in an added aria, “Maybe,” (not listed in the program), we know for sure. Alma is living in a dream world and her mind is going.
Going but not gone. The title itself, A Family Reunion, takes on richer dimensions as the clan gathers around the dinner table for “Dig In,” a lighter moment. There’s something universal for everyone to recognize. Al, the beer-guzzling son-in-law, played solidly by Andrew Adelsberger, gives the toast. But Alma still remembers the ritual of saying grace. In the lovely “New Grace,” the eight family members join hands for: “May the love in my heart pass from my hand to your hand.” And, as we continue to watch the family members with their dysfunctional ticks, I caught myself at the edge of my seat anticipating every aria. What will Alma do next before her mind goes to whiteout? Who will take care of her?
Set designer Osbel Susman-Peña provides much needed visual reference points. Two large triangular frames, apex gables of a roof, are suspended from the ceiling battens to create a topsy-turvy sense of disorientation. For the staging of A Family Reunion, the tangled red and dark blue-green draperies wrapped on diagonal poles that look like a dense forest or a broken mast from a wrecked ship, stand out like symbols. The set is an abstract backdrop for a confused mind, fragmenting and breaking down. Kudos to Susman-Peña for dreaming up a design that fits two totally different operas, in style and content. (More about that later.)
Patton’s music flows like improvisation, it is so alive and spontaneous. In actuality, Patton’s music is carefully notated, (as revealed in a post-show talk-back on opening night). There are no big breaks between recitative and arias, for example, as in classical 18th and 19th century operas. The conversational, streaming dialogue goes on and on, like a strong river current. Whereas results may sound life-like to the audience, the music is extremely demanding and must be carefully rehearsed for tricky meter changes.
For example: In “Sisters,” a highpoint in Act I, a flashback of the way it used to be, we see a happy family of three sisters: Anastasia L. Robinson, as Ruth; Patricia Portillo as Elizabeth; and Alexandra Lin as Ursula. The trio starts out a cappella and eases into a jazzy tempo that sounds like riffing. (Patton played jazz saxophone in the 1970s.) The beat changes and the girls, recalling how they once danced together, break out into a soft-shoe routine. Then the instrumental harmony soars into a harsher atonality for what happened to their lives after their split-up.
As for the rest of the story? The big question of what to do about mom looms, as family members pass the buck, argue and shift responsibility. A family member has to decide or Alma gets sent off to the old people’s home.
But Act II, which comes across as a work still in progress, starts off slowly, picks up in pace and builds to the intensity of two profoundly important pieces. “At The River,” and “Found” have been added by George Fulginiti-Shakar, a musician and musical director, who has conducted at Arena Stage and won two Helen Hayes awards for musical direction, for Cabaret and Oklahoma! Fulginiti-Shakar, who is footnoted in the Family Reunion program for “additional music,” joined the creative team of Moses and Leavitt and didn’t allow the opera to remain unfinished. The amazing, full story, “The Road to A Family Reunion,” by director/playwright Bill Moses, also can be found in the program. I recommend reading it.
A Family Reunion
Closes December 8, 2013
In Series at GALA
3333 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010
2 hours with 1 intermission
Fri, Dec 6 at 8pm;
Sun, Dec 8 at 3pm
Details and Tickets
Also, an important revelation is made in Act II. We discover why Ollie Jr, (Sean Pflueger) the prodigal son, never came home for his father’s funeral. But I cannot tell you more without giving away the opera’s ending.
Far from a documentary-opera written for reality TV or for therapeutic value, A Family Reunion comes across as a fresh take on how an American family can prevail. And the second act resurrects the question of how to carry on in the face of tragic loss, albeit loss of memory or life itself. The title takes on an added dimension by confronting how death is a form of reunion.
Ultimately, however, it is Chris Patton’s complex music that creates a sense of edginess and makes this opera cutting edge. The dissonance although disturbing is gripping because the outcome is uncertain. But the risky part is that both sets of musicians have the rhythmic skills, and sense of timing to end at the same time. And judging from opening night, they manage to do it. It’s a bravura performance. (To be repeated Fri., Dec. 6th at 8 p.m. and Sun, Dec. 8, at 3 p.m.)
Double mention is deserved of Osbel Susman-Peña’s versatile stage design that adapts beautifully for A Family Reunion and for the staging of Puccini’s ultra-romantic The Spirits (Le Villi), in which Roberto loses his way in the inexplicable dark forest and deserts his bride-to-be. That opera in this repertory series is to be repeated this Sat., Dec. 7th.
A Family Reunion, a world premiere of a modern opera by Christopher Patton . Libretto, lyrics and stage direction by William “Bill” Moses . Music by Christopher Patton with piano-vocal score added by George Fulginiti-Shakar . Orchestration and musical direction by Paul Leavitt . Produced by The In Series Opera Company . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.