UrbanArias’ Artistic Director Robert Wood continues to push the envelope of what makes for contemporary opera. In Elvis Costello, the famous Brit pop singer/song writer, he has found a composer with ranging musical sensibilities and seemingly an inexhaustible and quirky curiosity about how to tell stories of the human heart through song in The Juliet Letters.
Originally set down by Costello and The Brodsky Quartet, the work was released as an album in 1993, announcing it as “decidedly not a rock opera” but instead a song sequence for solo voice and string quartet. UrbanArias has taken the song cycle of twenty songs and turned it into a dramatic ensemble work for three singers.
Once an avowed exploration in creative process by Costello and original collaborators, it was followed by a process in Woods’ production company where singer-actors were also asked to take risks – theirs vocally and through improvisation – to assemble the work for dramatic performance. Through discussions with director Cara Gabriel, the company has divided up the material and massaged the songs into expressionistic vignettes with characters placed in certain (some familiar) life situations: writing or receiving the letters.
If this does not add up to something altogether coherent, nonetheless, audience members are asked to undergo their own exploration and enter into something of a co-conspiracy. It’s one that requires every single person watching to create his, her, or their own narrative. With this assistance, the piece maintains our interest and shows some development through time of relationships that proceed by fits and starts through life and into the afterlife as well.
Fearlessly, the singers tear into the changing emotions and situations as they take turns delivering songs in a kind of dramatic cabaret, letting the pieces work like the quirky, colorful shards of the design backdrop by Jason Arnold.
All three singers are game and work the steeplechase of vocal styles that Costello and Co. throw at them. They don’t back off from pushing a punk rock number. Neither are they above a musical belt or a growl. But the performers can, on a dime go into a bel canto sound when called on.
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Melissa Wimbish takes the role of Woman in Hood, but the hood comes off pretty soon. With her mane of unruly red hair, she cuts a striking stage figure. She careens as if at fever pitch emotionally. Sometimes she reads as a half-mad medial, reading cards or palms or trying to consort with those lost and wandering beyond the grave. In another moment, as a woman betrayed in love, she comes across as a vengeful fury. Physically, Wimbish is enormously free and expressive, but she also commands throughout the performance a powerful vocal instrument delivering a super soprano sound.
Young artist Aryssa Leigh Burrs has wrought a more centered “core” character in the sketches and uses a warmer mezzo palette of sound for the most part. But in one scene, not particularly connected to anything else, she shows herself adept at physical comedy when she takes on a Granny character who seems to be dying but revives and connives to outwit her greedy youngsters who are trying to swindle her by changing her letter-as-will. She too is adept vocally at stylistic switches.
The Juliet Letters from UrbanArias closes July 14, 2019. Details and tickets
Robert Wesley Mason has a metallic ping in his sound that he uses to great effect straddling vocal styles. Hailing from Norfolk, Virginia, he can pull out a drawl like twang and convince us he might be someone on the circuit playing country rock then turn around and nail it as a “serious” baritone. He has a rough-and-tough demeanor that reminded me at times of the opera singer Michael Mayes who starred in Dead Man Walking (but without the psychotic violence.) Dramatically, at times Mason conveys a man unable to choose between his two women. In one song he contemplates suicide. Then he seems to be singing and trying to communicate from beyond the grave. For me, his character achieved the most logical and integrated arc of development. But I suspect this wasn’t necessarily a goal in the production.
I enjoyed the eclectic music styles and was truly tickled by the juicy language and pungent images of the text. A song like “This Offer is Unrepeatable” gives us a portrait of a real working woman, a fortune teller, plying her trade, and moves the audience as a piece of story telling. “Jacksons, Monk and Rowe” has a rock n’roll drive to it that grabs us and carries us along in the sheer sounds, whatever their meaning.
The singing of the last number was exquisite with immensely satisfying harmonic blends as the singers bring us back to a safe harbor vocally and emotionally. The refrain is set beautifully and the line deeply moving, “Banish all dismay, extinguish every sorrow / If I’m lost or I’m forgiven, the birds will still be singing.”
Robert Wood, grinning ear to ear, seemed particularly enchanted with this piece as he conducted the onstage quartet of members from The Inscape Chamber Ensemble. He clearly was having a great deal of fun dazzling us with the eclectic moods and styles. I learn something from this man and his con brio approach to programming and conducting contemporary material. I always know that over an evening spent with him and UrbanArias, we’ll be in good hands.
The Juliet Letters. Words and Music by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet. Conducted by Robert Wood. Stage Direction by Cara Gabriel. Set & Lighting Design by Jason Arnold. Costume Design by Nephelie Andonyadis. With Aryssa Leigh Burns, Robert Wesley Mason, and Melissa Wimbish, and featuring members of Inscape Chamber Orchestra. Produced by UrbanArias. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.