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AOT Begins 3-Year Residency at Georgetown

Brian Cummings in the role of Him, Elizabeth Baber in the role of Her, Ground, Ignoti Dei Opera, 2006, photo by Greg McLeskey
Brian Cummings (Him) and Elizabeth Baber (Her), Ground, American Opera Theater (Ignoti Dei Opera), 2006, photo by Greg McLeskey
With the revival of their production called Ground (see Charles's review of the staged premiere last year), American Opera Theater (AOT) launched its three-year residency at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center on Friday night. Simultaneously, two new degree programs will be inaugurated at Georgetown: B.A. programs in American Musical Culture (to incorporate criticism) and Theater and Performance Studies. The production depicts the life cycle of “Him” (countertenor Brian Cummings) and “Her” (soprano Elizabeth Baber) through birth, life, love, and death “anywhere, anyplace, anytime.” This journey was portrayed through ground-bass works from 17th century Italy, some fifteen madrigals of a variety of composers accompanied by a crack band of three – theorbo, gamba, and violin. The first work, Zefiro torna of Monteverdi, is about the birth of spring and its beauty. It was sung together by “Him” and “Her” on an uncluttered stage with projections of the words “dance” and “air” on the back wall. At times the lighting would strengthen on certain words to indicate brightness.

Similar in nature to Monteverdi’s formally staged Madrigaux at last summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival, AOT’s production was developed as an experiment by Timothy Nelson (direction and costume design) and Kel Millionie (scenography and projections design). Ground indeed fulfilled its aim of “defying categorization” by portraying a “simple, universal story free of plot and character details through music.” However, the accessible "combination of performance art, recital, cabaret, and dance" was undermined by a few issues.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, American Opera Theater (Washington Post, September 10)
At times the projections seemed like glorified, abridged supertitles. If the aim was to promote the textual themes of the madrigals through music, staging, and projecting snippets of text on wall at strategic times, why allow that to compete with the full translations in the program, unfortunately full of typos and sometimes frustrating to read in the variable lighting? The audience had too much information to freely create a plot in their imaginations.

The singers assumed that because the Gonda Theatre is an intimate performance space, singing with full technique was not required. This led to intonation issues, a lack of presence in the room, and overly relaxed vowels. Runs and melismatic material were often under-supported and lacking sufficient legato.

Memorable moments included an enchanting pppp moment by the theorbo; a very simple pizzicato ground-bass theme by the gamba of two ascending neighbor notes with variations on the theorbo; and the very cool Ciacona a 2 by Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665), where the countertenor sang (or improvised) the top instrumental line on a wordless “dah” sound. In the end, specific symbolism at different points in the life cycle could be deciphered in a variety of personalized ways. Friendly fellow blogger Akimon Azuki and I interpreted parts of the journey in different ways. For example, did the baby die? Did the suffering “Her” wearing a baseball hat near the end symbolize cancer and the side-effects of chemotherapy? The potential for AOT’s three-year residency is immense.

American Opera Theater's remaining productions this season include an intriguing new staging (yes, staging) of Handel's Messiah (at Georgetown, December 7 to 9) and a revival of Charpentier's David et Jonathas (May 2 to 4).

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