With Florida, the world premiere of an opera by composer Randall Eng and librettist Donna Di Novelli, Urban Arias just got bigger. It’s not just that the piece of ninety-five minutes didn’t feel like the company’s proverbial “quickie.” The robust seventeen-person orchestra included a gorgeously featured brass section and contained some serious licks on drums by Eric Plewinski in this decidedly jazzy score, which drew out a power-ride by Director-Conductor Robert Wood and the Inscape Chamber Orchestra.
Florida also necessitated some serious backing, put at the company’s disposal thankfully by National Endowment for the Arts and the musical commissioning powerhouse duo of Ted and Mary Jo Shen.
Eng and Novelli used as their jumping off place a news story about a teenage girl implicated in the murder of her mother and whose character was viciously attacked by jury and press alike, sensationalizing her sexuality. Novelli indeed had followed the story closely in the eighties and had written a dramatic treatment of it. Eng was less interested in the historical details and more keen to construct through a kind of song cycle the mood swings of a restless young woman set against a kind of “American Gothic” chorus that views and judges her, using changing polyrhythmic sections as snapshots.
Eng’s music is strong indeed and, as written up in the program, lies somewhere “at the intersection of opera, music-theatre, and jazz.” Filled with syncopation and changing time signatures, the score feels smart, contemporary, and American, and indeed pushes the story forward.
One of the work’s weaknesses however is that it doesn’t always sit happily in the singers’ ranges. In particular, Eng’s vocal writing for women began by placing several lines lower than they could comfortably sing over the orchestra and set up many tricky middle notes where the throat wants to catch and pull back vowels into muffled murkiness. For some members in the audience, character and plot became difficult to follow . Later in the show, Eng seemed to have found more satisfying ways to write for the individual female voices.
The production seems to have emphasized Novelli’s libretto choices in language that are sometimes problematic to sing. Although the story makes a big deal about the musical vowels in the girl’s name, “Florida Fandango,” the libretto often favors ‘schwa’ sounds and wide diphthongs which the singers have been encouraged to lean into and bend in such overly jazzy ways as to be so idiosyncratic (think something approaching Billie Holiday’s vocal mannerisms) as to lose intelligibility. Moreover, the song cycle construction style leaves some holes in the telling of the story.
However, the seven young singer-actors prove themselves a game ensemble and give most polished and exhilarating performances.
Sharin Apostolou as the title character brings to Florida a fearlessness both vocally and physically and, after she warms up, manages to pull off the wild low plunges and high soprano staccato attacks with equal alacrity. She is a dream of an emotional actress to boot.
In “There’s a scream inside me,” she gives us the roots of a rebellious teenager’s angst. Soon she plays a dangerously vixenish game as she flings her curvaceous body with abandon across the stage singing about her passion for red lipsticks. But as the events turn dark and complicated, she becomes a frightened little girl caught up in a woman’s body.
closes April 14, 2018
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Daniel Rowan plays Marc, Florida’s first boyfriend and the self-confessed murderer. It’s a role that demands he change from goofy boy-next-door to creepy stalker, and he conveys both sides of this character with complete conviction. Eng writes to display a kind of breakneck squeeze at the top of Rowan’s tenor voice that is prized in rock or Broadway power shows like Jesus Christ Superstar (in which the singer has indeed played Jesus.) Dramatically, there is something dangerous and beautifully complex in the way the character is written, and Rowan fit the bill, showing us America’s fascination with people like Marc, who ends up getting fan male in prison, covered in lipstick.
Thank goodness for Kevin Newbury’s clever direction covering the hole in the writing of the climatic event by having Marc stand on stage with a short rope, because it is nowhere in the writing why the murder takes place.
Nancy Allen Lundy plays another creepy sort; her role of “One Dead Mother” is a combination of a kind of vamp – as in vampire – living off her daughter, sucking on a cigarette and slinking around in her bathrobe with her swinging long blonde hair. She is a disturbing presence, as ambivalent as the character’s vocal writing. We follow the woman still clinging to life as a would-be sixteen year-old long after she’s been shown as a slab on a mortuary table. There is something unforgettable about Lundy’s performance, a true original.
The writing for the four other singers is somewhat more problematic. The creators have set up a family next door as chamber chorus, with mother, father, and two teenage children. These nosy suburban neighbors, come complete with color-coded purple outfits straight out of a Sears catalog. The Redwood Male, Female etc. are not even given names. Eng and Novelli said they wanted to chuck out the two-dimensionality of their American Gothic presence, but they haven’t totally succeeded with that yet.
Ethan Lee Greene as the suburban husband and father next door is the most successful in escaping the posed limitations in his portrayal. It may be because he has an incredibly rich bass-baritone which Eng treats with comfortable respect, providing him with lush vocal lines that have the audience rooting for him from the beginning.
Hannah Meredith Hagerty falls too neatly into clichés of her character, and her voice is better when allowed to open up top. The story has her make the commendable choice of leaving her unenviable marriage, but I am not sure the work prepares us sufficiently for this.
Hagerty and Greene, sometime together with Lundy, play both the comedy of these adult roles but also get us to examine one of the most important themes of this work and the story behind the tragic murder: “who are the adults in the picture?” The Suburban parents make us laugh when they sing, “And our children, don’t we have some?” But we also watch as all three children are left to their own devices without emotional rudders or sufficient adult interactions to carry them unscarred into adulthood.
Ian McEuen and Katherine Riddle play both the neighbor children and fill in several other roles to satisfy the plot, but I like them best as the children, sneaking cigarettes and disappearing under the deck where the parents sit spying on their neighbors. It is confusing that the daughter next door also plays Diane who ends up marrying Mark, the killer in prison.
The ensemble and orchestra came together for an exhilarating and rich finish, and I loved their power. This new work has legs, and I hope it continues to grow and flourish.
Florida. Music by Randall Eng. Libretto by Donna Di Novelli. Conducted by Robert Wood. Directed by Kevin Newbury. Set Design by Andrew Boyce. Costume Design by David C Woolard. Lighting Design by Abigail Hoke-Brady. With Sharin Apostolou, Ethan Greene, Hannah Hagerty, Daniel Rowan, Nancy Allen Lundy, Ian McEuen, Katherine Riddle. Produced by Urban Arias. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith