Elizabeth Cree

Keith Phares as John Cree, Katy Pracht as Elizabeth Cree.

Murder!  Mayhem!  Ghoulish entertainment for the lower classes!  Terror in the night on the foggy, shabby back streets of Victorian London!  It sounds like the makings of a Gothic suspense novel.  But an opera?  With a canvas that is the amalgam of a 19th century English music hall milieu, a courtroom trial, and serial murders, it hardly seems likely.  Of significant works intended for the opera house, only Alban Berg’s “Lulu” comes close to being as lurid.

In “Elizabeth Cree,” the eminent Pulitzer Prize winning team, composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, have crafted a score and a darkly comic libretto with Gothic atmosphere that is absolutely riveting.  West Edge Opera’s stellar new production at its wonderful outdoor venue channels the creepiness of the events even at a broad daylight matinee.

Samuel Faustine as Dan Leno, Joe Meyers as Little Victor Farrell, Leslie Katter as Aveline Mortimer, Christopher Job as Uncle.

The opera is loosely based on fact.  Elizabeth Cree suffered a hard scrapple upbringing with a mother who badly abused Elizabeth’s genitals as punishment for the girl’s having been raped.   However, she rose from the bowels of society to catch on as a performer with a music hall troupe.  Later, she met and married John Cree, a literary critic and failed writer but with a comfortable income from his family.  John would be implicated in a series of Jack the Ripper like murders but would die from a dose of poison administered by Elizabeth, who would be tried for his murder.

Like the company producing it, the opera is edgy in every way.  The plot line is delivered briskly in a series of 29 vignettes that move back and forth in place and time.  At one point Elizabeth reveals her unhappy childhood and at another her sexual frigidity.  Vaudevillian-like music hall entertainers in silly costumes amuse us.  Real-life luminaries Karl Marx and George Gissing are encountered at the reading room of the British Museum, also frequented by John Cree, and are interrogated on the witness stand of the trial.  Most vividly, we see the scenes of the swarthy, rakishly handsome John Cree enacting and describing in gory detail the bloody, precise vivisection of the murder victims.

Samuel Faustine as Dan Leno, Katy Pracht as Elizabeth Cree.

The composer’s dizzying score engages throughout with the same rapid movement as the scenes.  The orchestra tinkles and tingles and screeches and pounds like a punch in the gut.  It soars as Cree contemplates impaling the next victim.  But at the same time, the music allows for a variety of lyrical vocalizations which are delivered with consummate skill.

Mezzo Katy Pracht soars as Elizabeth with a mellow voice and full vibrato, conveying a panoply of enigmatic emotions from her lost innocence to her deadly scheming.  But her murderous character is mundane when contrasted to her male counterparts.  Pracht’s real-life husband, Keith Phares, portrays the sinister John Cree with flair.  His silky, rounded baritone includes a lilting high end and warm vibrato.  Finally, Samuel Faustine is the brassy and gaudy comedian Dan Leno, the head of the music hall performers.  His versatile tenor voice includes a well-controlled countertenorish high end that is put to great use in low volume passages.

Keith Phares as John Cree.

This opera may not have the gravity of Verdi or Mozart works.  However, the score is multifaceted, fitting, and eminently listenable.  Not to mention, the libretto is clever in structure; gripping and engaging; and as propulsive as the music.  To top it off, there is an element of suspense with an intriguing denouement.  The West Edge production touch is a perfect fit to this delightful opera.

“Elizabeth Cree,” composed by Kevin Puts, with libretto by Mark Campbell, is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA through August 7, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.

San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

American Theatre Critics Association

Katya Kabonova

Phil Skinner as Dikoj, Kristin Clayton as Kabanicka, Alex Boyer as Tichon, Carrie Hennessey as Katya, Sarah Coit as Varvara, Chad Somers as Kudrjas. All photos by Cory Weaver.

For several seasons, the innovative and peripatetic West Edge Opera has performed at various historic, industrial, and sometimes noisy venues, all with unsloped  seating.  This season, they have moved outdoors to the glorious Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.  Its tiered seating provides comfortable sight lines that are greatly welcomed, not to mention a spectacular backdrop of golden hills with green riparians from its setting in the Siesta Valley.  Many thanks to California Shakespeare Theater, which holds a long-term lease on the venue.  Cal Shakes has facilitated other companies performing at this wonderful outdoor arena in its “Season of Shared Light,” providing a safer haven from the pandemic than indoor spaces.

In keeping with its tradition of producing operas that open new horizons for much of the audience, West Edge’s 2021 Festival commences with Leoš Janáček’s 1921 masterpiece, “Katya Kabanova.”  A stellar cast led by soprano Carrie Hennessey turn in outstanding performances to make this a compelling opera experience.

Carrie Hennessey as Katya, Christopher Oglesby as Boris.

Until recent times in the United States, Janáček was a known but rarely performed composer, limited largely because of the difficulty of casting opera in Czech.  However, “Katya Kabanova” is exemplary of his searing dramas about common people who sing with the vocabulary, style, and rhythms of natural language, creating an authenticity that has found audiences.  His eclectic, somewhat dissonant 20th century musical style which draws heavily on folk music, especially Moravian, has created demand.  Although the format of “Katya Kabanova” is through-sung, it does contain some notable arias.

The opera is based on a Russian play, Nikolayevich Ostrovsky’s “The Thunderstorm.”  However, its passion also draws from Janáček’s own unrequited love for a married woman, like Boris’s love for Katya in the opera.  Needless to say, social convention in small town Russia in the 19th century was more restrictive than current day.  It bears noting that moral turpitude (if one even wishes to classify “illicit” affairs as such) derives not from possessing thoughts about socially-unacceptable deeds, but rather by the failure to prevent thoughts from translating to action.  In some cases, temptation is all but unavoidable.

Katya is a tragic figure. She is a young, attractive woman, caught in an unhappy marriage to Tichon.  He is not inherently evil, but suffers under the thumb of his domineering and socially-rigid widowed mother, Kabanicka, who makes life hell for the free-thinking Katya.  In the critical event of the narrative, the mother forces Tichon to go on a long business trip.  Katya knows that she will be tempted to make love with Boris if Tichon leaves and begs the husband to either stay home or take her with him.  He argues that his mother gives him no choice and denies her.  His absence marks the descent into Katya’s devastation.

Kristin Clayton as Kabanicka, Alex Boyer as Tichon.

It is good fortune that General Manager Mark Streshinsky and Music Director Jonathan Khuner had a history with Carrie Hennessey through her playing the lead in the company’s 2014 “End of the Affair.”  From her resumé, it isn’t apparent that she would be up to a demanding role of the magnitude of Katya.  Yet she totally commands it.  Dramatically, she captures the many emotions of the desperate young woman.  Musically, she captures those moods through the full vocal range and in both lyric and dramatic voicings.  These contrasts are particularly well expressed when she is conflicted, as when she first meets Boris and admits both her love for him along with her guilt and wishing to die.

Other performers are superb as well, starting with Kristin Clayton’s appropriate harshly-delivered depiction of the demanding Kabanicka.  The two men in Katya’s life are represented by two clarion tenors, Alex Boyer as her husband Tichon and  Christopher Oglesby as the lover Boris.  Booming baritone Phil Skinner, delightful mezzo Sarah Coit, and bright tenor Chad Somers also provide appealing turns.

The opera is set “with a nod to 1950s California.”  A few furniture pieces are consistent with midcentury modern design, but décor features like sepia-colored prints and an antimacassar don’t fit that period.  In any case, the predominance of institutional green wall coloring is dreary.  A true representation of the 20th century, perhaps bright looking in contrast to the dark action of the opera might be interesting, but otherwise full-on traditional version would work well.

The orchestra endures somewhat daunting conditions, placed completely under the stage with only a small aperture onto the apron.  Amplification is required to produce satisfactory volume (though singers voices come through with great power and clarity without mics).  On opening night, the striking introductory sequence with a deep and long held chord followed by a brief melody and timpani motif was muffled and almost lost, perhaps because the sound controls hadn’t yet been optimized.  Overall, the orchestra seemed to fare better when the instruments’ soundings had greater separation, but they occasionally seemed a little out of sync and tune during tracts demanding greater unison.

Sarah Coit as Varvara, Chad Somers as Kudrjas.

In sum, with “Katya Kabavona”’s powerful score and intense drama, Janáček expressed his full maturity in the vocal genre.  It is a classic, and West Edge’s production is well worth seeing.

“Katya Kabanova,” composed by Leoš Janáček with libretto by Vincenc Červinka is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA through August 5, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

The Song of Summer

Jeremy Kahn, Monica Ho. All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

Nostalgia, that palpable yearning for past days of youthful enthusiasm and innocence, comprises the sights, sounds, and smells of those special times.  But a frequent trigger of those warm feelings comes from the soundtrack of the time.  Playwright Lauren Yee taps that vein and beyond with “The Song of Summer.”  With a nod to the music, the playwright takes a charming and humorous look at the relationships and trajectories of our lives.

Ever self-effacing Robbie has stumbled onto the brink of success.  While bartending in Tacoma, the bar’s manager, Joe, sees the potential of a song that Robbie introduced to him.  He organizes Robbie’s recording it, and it rises to become the emotional timestamp which young people would most associate with that summer.  The song’s popularity spawns a national tour for the nascent star, but when he receives boos at a North Carolina concert because some consider his lyrics “rapey,” he bails without notifying anyone.  His escape is into the bosom of his former piano teacher in Pottsville, PA, a coal town where he had grown up until a dozen years before at age 16.

Anne Darragh, Jeremy Kahn.

Who could portray Robbie’s nebbishy character more splendidly than Jeremy Kahn?  Eminently likeable, a talented musician, and nice looking, Robbie’s diffidence and lack of confidence leads him to repeatedly refer to himself as a 4 on a scale of 10.  As much as you like him, you want to make like Cher in the movie “Moonstruck,” and scream “Snap out of it!” and throttle him.

The piano teacher, Mrs. C, is delightfully performed by Anne Darragh.  Kind and supportive, she was more a mother to Robbie than his blood mother.  She is also a pack rat.  So when Joe, now Robbie’s artistic manager, catches up with him, Joe realizes that Mrs. C may possess information that could help benefit Robbie’s career.  Reggie D. White excels as the stereotypical artist’s manager – hyper, aggressive, and always keeping eyes on the prize, unlike the sometimes dreamy-eyed and ambivalent client.

Reggie D. White.

And then there is Tina, who had a complex relationship with Robbie growing up.  She is the daughter of Mrs. C played wonderfully by Monica Ho.  Very grounded as an adult, but in a flashback sequence to high school days, she is revealed as ambitious, yet fun-loving, and adventuresome.  She also has a foul mouth that could embarrass a sailor.

 “The Song of Summer” contains many stock situations, but they are written and performed with great flair, and the outcomes are not always as expected.  Importantly, the play’s subtext provides layers of depth that result in a thoughtful work.  Though the work doesn’t wallow in self-importance, this is not an episode of “Happy Days.”

Perhaps the most important underlying theme concerns the effects of random events in life.  People like to think that they exercise great agency over their lives, and often that is true.  The dominant life arc of some people may have few arbitrary disruptions, but for others, uncontrollable events create a trajectory as erratic as shots from a loose cannon.  Their lives are full of “what-ifs” – if a life-altering appointment weren’t missed; if a parent hadn’t died; if one hadn’t been required to serve in the military, all lead to radically different pathways of life.  In this case, what if Robbie hadn’t moved to Tacoma, an act over which he had no control?  What if Tina had seen the camcording intended for her?   But we are also reminded that momentous what-ifs occur from decisions over which we do exercise control.

Another key element is chosen versus inherited family.  Here, the caring Mrs. C acts as the nexus.  Although the central element of family is blood kinship, she demonstrates that water can be thicker than blood.  Tina did not come to her by birth but by adoption, though their bond is no different than blood relatives.  Robbie comes from a dysfunctional background, and Mrs. C was like a mother to him, who he felt comfortable returning to.  By design, the playwright specifies characters to have ethnicities – Asian (Tina, who is adopted) and Black (Joe, who had been a replacement singer in The Four Tops) to demonstrate familial linkages across color.

Monica Ho, Jeremy Kahn.

The play is also about going home again, and the way of life in small town America.  There is a clash between the traditional view of unchanging practices and values versus the realities of the modern day.

Although they are chalk and cheese, Kahn and Ho sparkle together as well as apart. “The Song of Summer” moves along at a brisk pace, and while Director Bill English’s clever staging allows for rapid set changes in the absence of intermission.   Given the play’s centerline, the show would benefit from having more punch in the musical numbers (especially the opening, but with the exception of the karaoke duet “Alone”).  That said, it is a well-acted and directed, fun and provocative play with a modicum of suspense that should appeal to a wide audience.

“The Song of Summer” written by Lauren Yee and produced by San Francisco Playhouse appears on their stage at 450 Post St., San Francisco, CA through August 14, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association