Guerilla Opera created the new chamber opera by composer Gabriele Vanoni and librettist Ewa Chrusciel Ellis last night at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Once again, Guerilla innovates in the field of chamber opera.
Selling the production as an overall experience, the staff at Guerilla Opera ‘treated’ each audience member, assigning them to Groups A, B, and C with paper badges as if each of us was entering the United States for the first time. . From there, the three groups split into different parts of the hall, usually focusing on where one of the main scenes occurred. Adding to the effect of spatialization, each of the scenes before the imaginary arrivals of the immigrants took place in different divisions of the balcony of the Meeting House. Projections on the ceiling or on the pulpit of the Meeting House enhanced each scene, helping us, in the absence of sets, to imagine being in a particular space. Some technical issues towards the end of the show caused the computer desktop background and the file selection window to appear. This made the suspension of disbelief a little difficult.
The opera tells how Irish Jew Manny (tenor Taka Komagata), Italian bride-to-be Maria (soprano Bizhou Chang) and German Jewish refugee Raysel (soprano and artistic director Aliana de la Guardia) leave their country home and travel to the United States. United. Manny takes a job alongside his brother Lou. Maria is forced into an arranged marriage with family friend Joseph Galetta. With an unborn baby, Raysel flees a refugee camp and leaves behind a camp guard (implied father) whom she has fallen in love with.
Maria and Manny share a dance on the ship the day before arrival, which happens to be Maria’s birthday. Raysel arrives at Ellis Island to find his father ill and disabled; deciding that she cannot take care of both him and her baby, she gives her new baby girl up for adoption. Manny meets Lou who offers him a job at the “Edison Factory”. Two days later, the two are fired – Manny because he is Jewish.[i] Maria ends her story by thinking of an arranged marriage.
The story doesn’t strive to be big, but focuses entirely on the characters and their own little stories. However, the scenario could have imagined more ties between the three immigrants. Raysel’s story seemed particularly unrelated to others, as she never met Manny or Maria.
The three main singers have carved out distinctive spaces for themselves. Komagata, particularly lyrical in his role, utters sweeping declamations. Chang had a clear understanding of how to shape his solo; it approached the intensity of a tune. Its speaking sections seemed a bit stilted and stiff. With the widest vocal color palette of the three, de la Guardia gave Raysel a deeply moving and sympathetic portrayal, especially in her portrayal of the decision to abandon her child. Baritone Brian Church had relatively limited stage time in the minor roles of Guard and Lou, but it was refreshing to have a lower range voice on stage when he appeared. Andros Zins-Browne played Raysel’s father, mostly a dance-based role, but in the epilogue he momentarily joined the other singers in a small choir. Her dance combined with some shadow effects for a fitting and engaging effect.
Typical of Guerilla’s productions, the small instrumental ensemble this time included violinist Lilit Hartunian, cellist (briefly doubles the mandolin) Stephen Marotto, saxophonist Philip Staudlin and percussionist Mike Williams. Vanoni provided the live electronics to support the quartet throughout. Each instrumentalist (minus Williams) had a brilliant moment as a soloist in the first three scenes. Extensive techniques abounded. The accompaniment of the scenes appeared to be much more responsive in terms of texture than a simple accompaniment. Combined with the electronics, the opera felt understated and personal. It worked for the topic, as the story itself isn’t great either.
Guerilla Opera has a second and final night of Ellis at Old South Meeting House tonight, October 3, 2021. If you like chamber opera and something designed to be personal and slice of life, you should try going. Ellis turns another page in the history of Guerilla Opera by telling stories of real people who speak of our shared experience.
Ian Wiese is a doctoral candidate at the New England Conservatory of Music, studying composition with John Heiss.
[i] Was it a NYC Consolidated Edison power plant, which could be the case, or Thomas Alva Edison’s Orange, NJ plant? Despite his personal anti-Semitism, Edison accepted Jews into high positions within his company. Also, “the subway” in New York does not go to Orange, NJ, mid-state and far from New York. The reference “Edison” is rather vague.