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Oedipus in America: A New England Tale

New York
The Dicapo Opera
09/10/2009 -  & September 11, 12*, 13, 2009
Tobias Picker: Emmeline
Kristin Sampson (Emmeline Mosher), Iulia Merca (Aunt Hannah Watkins), Zoltán Nyári (Matthew Gurney), Zeffin Quinn-Hollis (Mr. Maguire), Lisa Chavez (Mrs. Bass), Sam Smith (Henry Mosher), David Gagnon (Hooker), Lynnen Abeles (Sophie), Christina Rohm (Harriet Mosher), Peter Campbell (Pastor Avery), Kristen Lamb (Ella Burling), Stephen Lavonier (Simon Fenton)
Dicapo Opera Orchestra, Samuel Bill (Conductor)
Robert Alföldi (Stage Director), John Farrell (Set Design), Sandor Daróczi (Costume Design), Susan Roth (Lighting Design)

K. Sampson and Z. Quinn-Hollis (© Sarah Shatz)

Some time ago, reminiscing about his experience singing the title role in Sweeney Todd, Bryn Terfel spoke about how wonderful it was to be able to talk directly to the composer of a work he was performing. How exciting and illuminating it must have been for the DiCapo Opera Theatre’s group of young and talented singers to have the chance to work directly with the Artistic Director of the company, Tobias Picker. The fruits of this opportunity were on display when Mr. Picker’s first opera, Emmeline was performed at the jewel of a theater on east 76 street in Manhattan. Simply put, no one put a foot wrong. The production must have been everything Mr. Picker could have wished for. This work, his first opera, premiered in Santa Fe in 1996 and was telecast on PBS with Patricia Racette in the title role. Two years later, it was produced at the New York City Opera.

This retelling of a true story is Greek in its theme (the legend of Oedipus told from the perspective of his mother, Jocasta) and Dickensian in its depiction of grinding poverty in nineteenth century New England. Emmeline (Kristin Sampson), just thirteen years old when we meet her, is sent by her impoverished parents to work in a textile mill in Massachusetts. She is taken there by her Aunt Hannah, who throughout the story, is the almost mythic force (with a Calvinistic sense of religion), propelling Emmeline toward tragedy. The young girl boards with Mrs. Bass, and is soon seduced by Mr. Maguire, the son-in-law of the factory’s owner. The day after Emmeline gives birth to a child she was never even allowed to hold, the baby is taken away by her Aunt Hannah. Emmeline actually thought the baby was a girl. She named her Maryanne. Twenty years later, a border arrives at the Mosher home. Emmeline falls in love with Matthew Gurney and they marry. No one had any idea that Matthew was actually Emmeline’s son. Aunt Hannah, who knew the adoptive parents, discovers his identity and reveals all. Matthew flees in horror and Emmeline is left alone in despair.

As Emmeline, Kristin Sampson, seen last season as Sárka, was stunning dramatically as well as vocally. She was utterly convincing all the way through her journey from a naďve thirteen-year-old child to a scorned outcast, weighed down by a life of sorrow. She has a beautiful resonant voice with great intonation and enunciation. She had the power when she needed it and the delicacy for the beautiful lyrical melodies that Picker gave the character. Her facial expressions (visible in a small house) and every gesture gave depth and pathos to the character. For me the musical highpoint of the opera came in the second act when Emmeline fantasized about her baby who must now be twenty years old – she had named her Maryanne. “All I have left is the pain,” she sang, and sang beautifully.

As Aunt Hannah, Iulia Merca gave a superb performance. She has a dark richly colored voice and used it and her acting skills to great effect. In the scene in which she climbs on top of the birthing table, she was like an apparition from hell, an apocalyptic presence. The scene was beautifully staged and wonderfully sung.

Zoltán Nyári gave an excellent account of Matthew Gurney, Emmeline’s son and husband. He sang with a beautifully colored tenor voice and good diction, despite the fact that he is not a native English speaker. He is also a convincing actor. He was particularly fine in his ecstatic love duet with Emmeline and, before that, in the scene in which she teaches him to read. Ironically, the subject of the lesson was the temptations of the Garden of Eden.

As Maguire, Zeffin Quinn-Hollis used his resonant voice to give life to a very nasty character indeed. Although the rest of the singers were excellent, I should single out Lynnen Abeles, who sang the part of Sophie, Emmeline’s more worldly friend at the mill. Abeles has a lovely lyrical voice and is a convincing actress as well. The chorus, which functioned as both commentator and a character in the unfolding drama, was marvelous in its divergent roles. I particularly enjoyed the ironic song by the millworkers in their sweatshop: “Cheerily merrily we can sing.” And they did!

Samuel Bill led his orchestra in a very fine performance, whether the texture of the music was thick or thin. When sweep was needed it was there, as was a lovely almost transparent delicacy. Throughout, Picker embodied the drama in his music. Particularly effective were the dark opening bars -- sinister and ominous – which foreshadowed what was to come and his ravishing melodic lines. The luxurious harmony in the final scene brilliantly evoked Emmeline’s desolation.

The sets were minimal but amazingly effective and evocative. They were mostly panels of black and white and gray. When a touch of color was added, as in the bright blue dress Emmeline wears during the seduction scene, it had great power.

Emmeline will be performed in Szeged, Hungary in November as part of the opera competition and festival.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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