Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Opera Manhattan is presenting a program that portrays the gruesome side of love in all its awfulness. Three singers perform three monodramas, beginning with Thomas Pasatieri’s setting of a series of passages spoken by Lady Macbeth. Sofia Dimitrova, an accomplished artist with a powerful and nuanced soprano, who also specializes in performing Baroque opera roles, gave this engaging modern piece a committed concert-style reading.
Two longer pieces followed. The first, also by Pasatieri, came from his opera based on the Eugene O’Neill play Before Breakfast. This was the most staged piece of the three, and Meredith Buchholtz, a polished and convincing actress with an expressive, vibrato-decked voice, made me want to see her on a bigger stage acting in context. Having discovered her husband’s duplicity, the character berates him, reminisces about better times, hopes impossibly for the future, and waltzes with his jacket. The story was well told even with just one character’s point of view on display. However Ms. Buchholtz is one of those opera singers whose vibrato can at times make it difficult to make out what the note is, especially in a capella passages, of which there were a number. (Music director Tristan Cano accompanied the singers with forceful yet tasteful piano flourishes throughout the evening.)
The final piece was Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, a one-act opera for a single character, essayed here in French, in semi-staged format, by the impressive Kala Maxym. Based on a Cocteau play, it was the most dramatically interesting work of the evening. The entire opera consists of the singer talking on the phone with her boyfriend, who has just left her. It’s startling to see the classic opera style applied to a phone conversation with carefully scripted cut-offs, interruptions by the operator, and so on; on the one hand it’s old-fashioned-modern (we don’t have operators and party lines any more), but on the other, youth of today, so dependent on the inferior technology of cell phones, won’t have any trouble recognizing the aggravations of poor phone service.
Despite being on book, Ms. Maxym made Poulenc’s modernistic but melodic work appropriately heartbreaking, her beautifully expressive voice soaring, breaking, chattering nervously, in a thoroughly convincing reading of Poulenc’s modest gem of a mini-opera.
I was less enamored of the performance space, a brightly lit rehearsal studio which gives the whole endeavor the flavor of a recital instead of a semi-staged performance and thus makes an evening like this feel overlong. But I was delighted to be introduced to some modern music I really enjoyed, and even more so to hear three terribly talented singers broaching the terrors of love as Valentine’s Day approaches.
Photo: Kala Maxym, by Arielle Doneson