A dilettante at large reviews RIDERS TO THE SEA/ EMPTY THE HOUSE (Curtis Opera)

Theater critic extraordinaire Toby Zinman continues her forays into other art forms with a visit to Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theatre to see two one-act operas presented by the Curtis Opera Theatre in partnership with Opera Philadelphia. Read all her “dilettante at large” reviews here.

Emily Damasco as Maurya, Olivia Smith as Cathleen in RIDERS TO THE SEA. Photo by William Brown Photography.

Emily Damasco as Maurya, Olivia Smith as Cathleen in RIDERS TO THE SEA. Photo by William Brown Photography.

John Millington Synge, one of the major figures of Irish drama (Playboy of the WesternWorld, Deirdre of the Sorrows), wrote this one-act, Riders to the Sea about the life of the people of the Aran Islands. His recreation of the folk dialect is so lyrical and so rhythmic, it isn’t much of a reach to sing the dialogue (although the young cast had a hard time singing with an accent).

The plot of Riders to the Sea is spare and tragic: a mother  (Emily Damasco in fine voice) has lost four sons and her husband to the “great wind,” to the “dark night” and to the sea. A fifth son, Michael,  disappeared nine days before, and their worst fears are confirmed when a bit of his clothing is washed ashore. The last of the sons, Bartley (Patrick  Wilhelm) leaves to catch the boat to take a pony to the horse fair,and leaves without his mother’s blessing. When she goes to meet him on the road, she watches his horse rear and fling him into the sea.

Her two daughters (Olivia Smith and Sage DeAgro-Ruopp who is oddly smiley) remain, with a chorus of women keening, “It’s destroyed we surely are from this day.”  Roger Vaughn Williams’s music is wonderfully dirge-like and grim.

Dennis Chmelensky as Paul, Tiffany Townsend as Brenda in EMPTY THE HOUSE. Photo by William Brown Photography.

Dennis Chmelensky as Paul, Tiffany Townsend as Brenda in EMPTY THE HOUSE. Photo by William Brown Photography.

The second half of the program, Empty the House is a contemporary piece with music by Rene Orth and libretto by Mark Campbell. It, too, is a family drama surrounding a mother and her grown children, and it, too, has tragic overtones, although its realism and trite plot seemed to me to render the grief a cliche, although many in the audience seemed to find the opera moving.

The plot begins with an adult daughter (Siena Licht Miller) returning home for the first time in ten years to help her mother (Tiffany Townsend) pack up and move from the house she grew up in. There is ill will and old grudges, revealed as they reminisce.

The son, Paul (Patrick Wilhelm), we learn, died of AIDS, after his mother turned him away when he came home needing help and care. His sister has never forgiven her mother for this and other remembered mistreatments when she was a child. The lyrics struck me as repetitious and  schmaltzy (“I hate her,” “I forgive you”) and the music seemed more like sound effects—crashing chords accompanying broken plates, water dripping, car driving away—and the singing is often a cappella.

Both sets, designed by Grace Laubacher are excellent and evocative of time and place, although I didn’t understand why we were watching the singers don fat suits and costume before the performance began.

[Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts] May 2-5, 2019; curtis.edu

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.