The best thing about Washington National Opera’s world premiere of Penny in the Terrace Theatre is that in a rare “tuning of the spheres” another new opera was commissioned and given a respectable viewing and hearing. This is the third year that Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has carried the banner forward in her personal crusade to bring American artists front and center and new operatic works to the stage in her American Opera Initiative.
The next best thing – and a pretty close second – is composer Douglas Pew, whose impressive talents are beautifully on display in this hour-long production. Pew knows how to build a dramatic score with plenty of textures and musical surprises but weaving it all together in a cohesive sound world. He also knows how to write for singers and brings out rich characters simply by knowing how to feature certain colors for the different voices.
Librettist Dara Weinberg fares less well, although I thought her idea for the storyline arresting indeed. Penny, the central character’s name, is a grown autistic woman who has been passed around as family members who have served as her caretakers die. Upon her Uncle Raymond’s passing, Penny is brought in to live with her sister and husband, Katherine and Gary Tate, whose well-meaning charity quickly turns sour as wife becomes cloyingly protective and brother-in-law Gary tries to use the trust for Penny’s care in an operation to heal a condition of his hand that crippled him from playing piano professionally. The central journey becomes a metaphor for a woman with a hidden talent who has to overcome her challenges. (There is a lovely irony in an opera where the lead singer must play a character who can’t imagine communicating let alone singing.
The issue for me in the libretto was that the language stayed so close to situational living-room conversation it felt alternatively flat-footed or melodramatic. It is only well into the second half of the opera that we hear some poetry that lifts the libretto from the pedestrian. When the characters begin to sing the song of the desert, “To love the desert is to love the silence,” the opera begins to soar. With phrases like “the solace of the silent dunes” and “Here is the place to be truly alone” we begin to understand something about the depth and beauty locked inside someone like Penny. Ah, to have had more of this and introduce the character of the desert earlier on.
Conductor Anne Manson does a terrific job of bringing the thirteen-instrument orchestra, which helped define the parameters of the commission, into something that shows such varied richness and she keeps the complex score clipping along. I love how she understands so well Pew’s palette and musical intentions as she drives the instrumentalists “chasing up and down” the scales, all reflecting the high-alert feel of the inner thoughts of the central character.
Manson has proved a worthy mentor for all of the new works in WNO’s Opera Initiative, and she seems once again to bring a feisty energy equal to the tricky task of birthing young operas. She worked with Weinberg and Pew two years ago when, as fledglings, they created a twenty-minute opera entitled A Game of Heart, also performed at WNO.
There was some wonderful singing in the evening, almost all performed by members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program. Alan Paul directs them with helpful crafting of their characters.
Deborah Nansteel sang the role of Penny and showed new colors in her singing than I have heard before from this artist. I loved how she explored the less than prettily-placed operatic sound in her almost inchoate vocalises that introduce her character to us. Nansteel was also brave and fully committed to realizing the character’s physicality, embodying at first a closed-off, almost “lumpy” creature in her sweatshirt and jeans, hands clenched or stuffed in pockets and rocking often to calm herself in her new surroundings and who nonetheless gains our sympathy. Penny grows through fits of anxiety moving forward then retreating, slowly evolving into a woman of tremendous courage, stature and talent. Nansteel’s voice as it opens up and forces others to listen to her was a metaphor for the courage it takes artists to stand in their own truth and share their gifts.
Bass Wei Wu must also be singled out. He is an opera singer par excellence. I am ever more impressed with this singer’s ability to display such a magnificent pure bass sound and at the same time convey such naturally phrased and understood thought-language. His character of Mr. Jason Shaw, the social worker, could have been a less than fully dimensional character, but in the hands of this compelling singer-actor, he was key in making the stakes clear in the story of how the character of Penny must be allowed to control her own life.
Baritone James Shraffran also created a quirky and very original contemporary character whenever his Uncle Raymond came on stage. His deftness and humor defied the convention of opaqueness that his “ghost walker” might have assigned him. Patrick O’Halloran as the music colleague of Gary Tate who comes over and discovers Penny’s hidden talent conveyed just the right blend of optimism, bounce and championship as he tries to coax Penny into stepping into and owning her talent. He is the most accessible character in the opera, a kind of boy-next-door sweetness, and his rendition of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” had just the right combination of humor and simple magic.
I would love to see the couple’s characters filled out more in their expression and how they serve the plot. I felt Trevor Scheunemann as Gary Tate particularly short-changed and too often given to snide commenting from behind the piano. His character’s bitterness and inner turmoil at losing his artistic outlet and means of livelihood suggests there are more opportunities for depth, and identification with and connections to Penny’s own struggle. Kerriann Otaño began well as she greets her sister, and her voice had a lovely quality, but the way the work was written her character became stuck too quickly as the shrill possessive caretaking sister.
There were only two performances of this opera, more than usual for new operas in development, for which the world is grateful. But to my mind it is still not sufficiently generous for artists to hear their work and study what is stage-worthy.
This performance of Penny, produced by Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, was performed January 23 and 24, 2015 at The Kennedy Center.