At Fringe, expect the unexpected, and I certainly did not expect a full-blown opera complete with classical Greek heroes and goddesses. A Fire in Water is a work that forges it all together. The production playing in the Lang Theatre at Atlas navigates pretty darn well between the Charybdis and Scylla of epic-style theatre and the stiff vertical posturing often associated with opera singing to deliver a compelling story about warriors and the mothers who love them.
Co-composers Michael Oberhauser and Terrence Johns are serious music-makers and collaborators. This time they’ve gone for a monumental work within a chamber opera structure, and went where others might fear to tread, proposing to librettist Shannon Berry a collaboration mining two tales of classical heroes as parallel love stories: Achilles and Patroclus from the great Homeric work The Iliad and the historic world conqueror Alexander the Great and companion-lover Hephastian.
Berry has framed two tales of war and love in the midst of war, uniting them by introducing the figures of the mother of Achilles and mother-protector figure of Alexander, one full the other a demi-goddess. In the show, Artemis played by Danielle Buonaiutu symbolically baptizes Alexander, echoing the legend that this goddess of childbirth let her temple in Athens burn to the ground so she could attend Alexander’s birth. In statuesque symmetry, Kristina Riegle as Thetis “bathes” her son in fire to keep him from harm (and, of course, neglecting to dip the little baby’s heel and ankle, hence sealing his mortal fate with his Achilles heel.)
I would like to study more closely this libretto, but at this first hearing there is some wonderful – and singable – poetry imbedded in it. “As in your quiet heart you knew war would be hell,” sings Achilles to his warrior friend.
Stage Director Courtney Kalbacker manages to create wonderful stage pictures that are appropriately dignified by involving the two stunning singers, Buonaiutu and Riegle in highly ritualistic pouring and washing. Buonaiutu channels well a something-other-worldly sorceress for her goddess archetype and sings with a siren’s brilliance. Riegle presents a kind of great earth mother. Both channel the ache of mothers unable to prevent their beloved boys from death and the destruction of war.
The goddesses are assisted by a chorus of three women, all dressed in long black evening gowns, whose names represent stars or star constellations. CarrieAnne Winter is Porrima, the protector of childbirth, Hilary LaBonte is Situla, the water-bearer, and Tanya Ruth, with a wonderfully rich and expressive voice is Andromeda. Winter, as the highest soprano, has a bell-like sound and Ruth’s mezzo soprano is most rich indeed, with LaBonte nestling in between, blending beautifully. Sometimes it was hard, as it so often is with soprano voices, to get their words. Nonetheless, there was some beautiful singing.
The most compelling part of the evening is nonetheless carried out dramatically by the flesh-and-blood males and in particular the moving love story between Achilles and Patroclus. Andrew Sauvageau is a very expressive singer-actor with a rich baritone that can play rough for effect. He manages to carry off both the pride of Greek’s star warrior and the tenderness of a man made vulnerable by love that turns to grief and despair when he loses his companion.
Kyle McGruther, a performer whose sleeve tattoo seems to have been styled particularly aptly for this rogue fighter with rock star looks, is most affective as the war weary Patroclus. One of the best moments in the opera is feeling the bitter irony on the night before battle, when Patroclus shares how clearly done with war and playing war games he is, knowing he just wants out, but we in the audience know he is about to pay the dearest price. The way these two sit back to back in chairs, leaning their heads against each other, their easy sparring physicality makes these two characters totally three-dimensional. The duet “I have dreamed this my whole life” was particularly affecting.
The relationship between David Artz as Alexander and Brian McDermott as Hephastian is not as finely or specifically tooled, and I am not sure if that is in the writing or the playing. Tenor Artz possesses a high lyrical instrument with good flexibility, but I couldn’t follow his dramatic journey as clearly as alter-ego Achilles. McDermott plays Hephastian a little like a clown who has stumbled his way onto a battlefield. Hephastian’s untimely death comes as a shock and rips at the heart of Alexander, and this is where the character comes into focus, when the man grabs at his belly feeling the beginning of a stomach illness and he seems to stare down the face of his own imminent death.
A Fire in Water
by Michael Oberhauser and Terrance Johns
at Lang – Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Details and tickets
Bob Grannan’s costumes work well, especially the sea-foam green and the fiery-toned gowns of the two goddesses. Alison V. Hall made good use of color washes on the vast back wall of the Lang stage at Atlas to create emotional shifts in the epic work.
There are some clunky moments. Achilles proclaiming vengeance for Patroclus’ death seemed like unsupported melodrama. Sometimes achieving “epic” made it also feel a little static and the playing consequently got same-level flattened.
For all that, this work deserves attention. All too often, Fringe productions veer into camp or the ridiculous. It’s refreshing to see the Silver Finch Arts Collective go for it with such serious purpose and the dedication of assembled talents. I urge audiences to come prepared to cheer for love and weep for useless, unstoppable war.