In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche tersely writes: “In revenge and in love, a woman is more barbaric than man.” Let’s be honest: it takes a man to write something so tone deaf, so blind to the repressive systems that regularly bind women in love and politics.
And yet, one might easily apply such core sexism to the two works comprising Heartbeat Opera’s Spring Festival: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Luckily, this relatively green company manages to crack open such erroneous attitudes with an astute double-feature, exposing all the complexities of female suffering embedded within these two canonical works.
Urgent, rigorous, and young (co-artistic directors Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske founded the company in 2014), Heartbeat Opera poses another beacon of hope against New York City’s gloomy operatic landscape.
As its mission statement makes clear, the company is primarily concerned with a return to the “essence of opera”—its functionality, its immediacy, its fun. And if its productions of Lucia and Dido are any indication (running in repertory until March 20 at Theater at St. Clements on 46th Street), then the company is accomplishing more than its goals.
The Lucia, directed by Proske, is a savvy and entertaining distillation of Donizetti’s genius. Stripped down to a ninety minute one-act, the opera’s orchestration and cast are reimagined to accommodate the production’s chamber-scale possibilities. In this version, the musicians, visible and integrated into the staging, evoke Donizetti’s score through a mere five instruments.
And while I’m sure that such changes will provoke a few pursed lips among purists, I find the alterations a refreshing and welcomed chance to reinvestigate the score. Of these musicians, I particularly commend maestro/pianist Daniel Schlosberg for his inventive orchestrations, which include a nice touch of guitar to complement the Mad Scene.
Among this Lucia’s many highlights, Louisa Proske’s smart direction offers the most cause for celebration. With a flair for dramatic tableau, Proske’s stage work manages to cleverly invoke a range of cultural touchstones—Foucault, Cervantes, Nurse Ratched, etc.—while ever remaining tactile and engaging.
Framed by the institutional restrictions of the hospital and psych ward, the opera’s concept never overburdens its text, but instead offers a way for the director to negotiate opposing terrains of realism and surrealism. Proske drives her ensemble vigorously through the opera’s proceedings with measured intelligence, all the while unearthing Lucia’s absurdity, pathos, and even humor.
The singing is also uniformly excellent. As Lucia, Jamilyn Manning-White unleashes all of the role’s requisite technical fireworks. Her voice, especially its spinning top, is well produced and moving. Moreover, she manages to convey Lucia’s complex, shifting interiority—from whimsy to devotion, and, finally, to madness—with conviction. And as her lover, Edgardo, David Guzman matches his exemplary Lucia, despite a few instances of faulty intonation. Still, his tenor has a lovely, clear sound, and his technical dexterity generally meets the role’s requirements.
Proske’s direction truly hinges on the collegial efforts of the entire cast, and each performer provides first-rate support for the two romantic leads. Matthew Singer’s Enrico is consistently satisfying; and in the role of the doomed Arturo, Christopher S. Lilley has a lovely, lyric tenor. John Taylor Ward provides an unsettling, unctuousness Raimondo, and Monica-Soto-Gil serves a consistent, unobtrusive Alisa.
Well paired with Proske’s Lucia, Ethan Heard’s direction of Dido and Aeneas is similarly intelligent, emotional, and efficient. In this variant on the classic story of love and loss from the Aenied, Heard develops his staging around a bathtub, its watery texture conjuring notions of the body, the sea, and the dissolving properties of time.
Surrounding this image of Dido’s desire, Heard balances the composition with such tactile elements as soil, flowers, designer heels, rouged evening gowns, imposing ladders, and brightly burning light bulbs; this materiality evokes both a palimpsest past and future, highlighting the genealogy of Purcell’s sources, as well as its contemporary relevance.
The ensemble, reduced once again, gamely pushes the comic element of Purcell’s music and Tate’s libretto. Doubling as supporting roles and ensemble, the cast moves the narrative along with infectious, drunken spontaneity. Of special note, Christopher Preston Thompson, as the Sorceress, injects the proceedings with a queer streak of anarchy; and, in the role of Aeneas, John Taylor Ward offers an arch, self-aware characterization.
The only figure to stand apart from this mayhem is Carla Jablonski as the regal, pathetic Dido, around whom the mischievous machinations swirl. Jablonski’s Dido is deeply felt and well sung—handsome, tasteful, and majestic.
My one complaint is that her diction is not always as adroit as her vocal technique (perhaps some surtitles would come in handy here?). Despite this unfortunate drawback, she inhabits her role with impressive sophistication.
As much as the singers and musicians in both Proske’s Lucia and Heard’s Dido contribute to the overall success of the double bill, the essential reason to see both operas lies with the staging. Heard and Proske are a pair of auteurs to watch for. Their intelligence and warmth saturate the respective works, making for a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the opera house.
Much like its comrade, LoftOpera, Heartbeat Opera revisits the classics to make opera relevant to 21st-century concerns. Perhaps a project such as this requires a dash of anarchy, a gesture of irreverence, and a guitar. If one finds this stance blasphemous, then I guess there’s always… the Met?
Photos by Russ Rowland and Tyler First