What Opera Vivente does in Baltimore is a minor miracle, seemingly on a wing and a prayer (for example, the stage manager of its latest production is listed in the program as TBA). Every season, this little chamber opera company, based in Charm City's Emmanuel Episcopal Church, produces at least one exciting opera (and usually more). Its daring programming generally shames the wealthier, larger companies in the area, and General Director John Bowen puts together productions that are beautiful and inventive. After a successful updating of Handel's Alcina in the fall, Opera Vivente has mounted the North American premiere of Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel. Dove created the opera in 1999, at Christ Church Highbury Fields in London, occupied by the Young Vic theater company during its renovation. The reduced orchestration (of the original production), made necessary by the limited performance space, also suited the demands of Opera Vivente's situation perfectly.
David Walker as Raphael, Tobias and the Angel, Opera Vivente
photo by Cory Weaver
David Lan, director of the Young Vic, wrote the libretto, adapting the Biblical book of Tobias (Douay-Rheims translation -- the book is classed as Apocrypha by the Protestant churches). Tobias is an odd story, about a son's journey to adulthood, confronting all those things that are part of growing up -- wrestling a giant fish, freeing his future wife from the clutches of her demon lover, and healing his father's blindness after birds mysteriously poop in his eyes. The story fascinated Renaissance artists, who from the 15th century onward usually represented the story through an image of the voyage of Tobias with Raphael at his side. Similar scenes, painted by Andrea del Verrocchio, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Filippino Lippi, Francesco Botticini, Bennozzo Gozzoli, and Perugino (among others), show the basic identifying elements: Tobias (ranging in age from a small boy to a teenager), with the fish in hand or strung on his belt, Raphael holding his hand (sometimes accompanied by Michael and Gabriel, too), and the boy's faithful dog.
Bennozzo Gozzoli, Raphael and Tobias (Chapel of Sant'Agostino, San Gimignano, 1464-65) -- courtesy of the extraordinary Web Gallery of Art
In the Bible, Tobias makes the long, perilous journey with his dog at his side, a narrative detail that enriches the story and that Lan's libretto sadly omits. The book's main lessons are about patience in suffering (Tobit, Tobias's father, accepts his blindness with reference to Job and Sara has to endure the death of seven husbands as the demon, Ashmodai, kills each one on his wedding night), faith and miracles, and the blessing of a strong and loving marriage (Tobias is often read at Catholic weddings). Lan opted to meld the story with that of the Prodigal Son, casting Tobias as a spoiled playboy for whom the journey with the angel is also about learning to readjust his priorities, ultimately being reunited with his distraught father. Some later artists expanded on the narrative possibilities of the story in similar ways, especially Raphael (who painted Raphael Presenting Tobias to the Virgin Mary) and Rembrandt (who painted an entire series of scenes from Tobias, especially focusing on the family of Tobit -- for example, Tobit's Wife with the Goat and The Archangel Leaving the Family of Tobit). Rembrandt's father went blind late in life, and the artist may have identified with Tobias's search for a cure.
Jonathan Dove's opera Flight (1998), a comedy of errors based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian man trapped for years in Charles de Gaulle airport because of an immigration SNAFU, has been wildly successful for a modern opera. (Steven Spielberg's movie The Terminal, with Tom Hanks, later used the same story.) A few years back, we reviewed the first two parts of Dove's condensed English version of Wagner's Ring cycle, produced in Pittsburgh. Dove, born in 1959, is drawn to the voice, having based a significant part of his reputation on his operas, songs, and choral compositions (like Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars). Tobias again shows his facility for vocal writing, as well as for the elegant use of a small range of instruments in weaving a polychromatic and translucent tapestry behind the singers, in a neo-Romantic, post-minimalist style reminiscent of John Adams. The playing from the pit, situated to the left of the performance space, was assured and clean, with prominent coloration from the flute and piccolo of Melinda Wade-English, the dewy splash of Carmelo Pino's accordion (!), the sparkling harp of Jacqueline Pollauf, and the tinkling percussion of Michelle Humphreys.
J. Dove, Flight, Glyndebourne
The cast was generally fine, consisting mostly of impressive local talent, with Robert Cantrell's resonant Tobit, Kenneth Gayle's stentorian Tobias, Jessica Renfro's reedy Sara, and Lori Hultgren's dark-voiced Edna standing out from the ensemble. Opera Vivente's casting of the countertenor David Walker, who has earned an international reputation for Dove's Refugee in Flight and many Baroque roles (we have reviewed him in Handel's Orlando and Agrippina), was a brilliant coup. He was in splendid voice, covered by the orchestra only at a few points (mostly when he was in his low range and toward the back of the space), and gave a subtly acted performance, angelic by its golden-faced but understated otherworldliness.
The work of an incredibly complicated but well-organized cast of over 70 performers included strong and well-blended singing from members of the Baltimore Masterworks Chorale, Johns Hopkins Symphony Choral Society, the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Choir, and especially the charming voices of the Handel Choir of Baltimore Children's Choir. The comic scenes with the grave diggers, employed by Sara's father to bury her husbands, were a stitch. The movement of the pooping sparrows, singing trees and mountains, and especially the waves of the Tigris River and the giant fish within it were charmingly represented by young people from the Baltimore School for the Arts Dance Department (choreography from Anton T. Wilson). The sets (designed by Thom Bumblauskas) featured a ramp on either side of the chancel steps, used by director John Bowen to stage the parallel scenes in the households of Sara and Tobit, often telescoped by the libretto to occur simultaneously.
Tim Smith, 'Angel' soars on the wings of its score (Baltimore Sun, March 1)
---, Taking on 'Tobias and the Angel' (Baltimore Sun, February 17)
Opera Vivente finishes its 10th and perhaps most adventurous season with Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (April 11 to 19), a nutty parody of that most operatic of mythological legends.