WASHINGTON, December 6, 2013 – For the first time in a long time, the In Series has taken a chance on a brand new work. And they couldn’t have chosen a more timely part of the year to debut their world premiere production of “A Family Reunion” at the Gala Theater this Saturday past.
This new but not-quite-new opera tells the familiar but unfamiliar tale of an annual family get together of a dysfunctional family, complete with the always predictable conflict and heartbreak that goes along with such events.
Although this particular family reunion doesn’t seem to be taking place during the end-of-year holiday season, many extended families end up with informal “reunions” of sorts between the Thanksgiving and New Year’s holiday season, which gives the production a particular poignancy as all of us near the end of another year of family joy and sorrow—all of which we’ll be having to face if holiday travel is on our own 2013 agenda.
“Family Reunion” has had a particularly lengthy gestation. It was conceived by composer Christ Patton and librettist Bill Moses as far back as the early 1990s. Composition and lyrics moved forward in fits and starts as both artists found themselves frequently in the midst of major projects involving a great deal of their time and attention.
Making matters more problematic, as work began in earnest on the opera’s second act, the opera’s eclectic composer, Chris Patton—who, among other tasks, was the managing director of the 21st Century Consort, passed away unexpectedly at the George Washington University Hospital in 2006 due to the onset of a sudden illness. Only 57, he had been at the time in residency at the University of Maryland.
Portions of “Family Reunion” had been performed and/or workshopped here and there during its long development at venues that actually included the In Series back in its early days when it was affiliated with the old Mt. Vernon College not far from Georgetown University. But with Patton’s death, it seemed as if the long journey of his opera had finally reached its end.
But last spring, with the assent of Patton’s widow, librettist William Moses gathered up the finished and unfinished portions of the opera and with the assistance of others, re-assembled the score, which included a complete first act and fragments of the second act, although Mr. Moses himself had actually completed the second act libretto some time ago.
What music couldn’t be found for the second act was composed by George Fulginiti-Shakar. Mr. Moses undertook to direct the completed work, having gotten together with his old In Series friends—particularly the In Series’ longtime artistic director and founder, Carla Hübner as well as this production’s music director and conductor Paul Leavitt who led the singers and directed the piano quintet that accompanied them.
Along with the In Series’ cast and crew, the director and conductor brought the entire effort to fruition last week at the GALA and we’d have to conclude that last Saturday’s premiere was largely a rewarding success.
“Family Reunion,” like many a film or television show today, is less a matter of plot and linear story than it is an exploration of the lives of disparate characters that just happen to be part of an extended family. The dramatic interest is primarily directed toward the conflicts among them—how they came about, how they’re resolved (if they’re resolved), and how various family members plan to move forward.
As the opera begins, the family’s current sibling generation has begun to arrive at the home of their recently widowed mother, Alma Green (Laura Lewis). Still mourning the recent loss of her longtime husband and best friend Ollie, Sr. (whose ghostly apparition is sung by Nephi Sanchez), Alma is also increasingly succumbing to forgetfulness. This makes her care an increasing burden on the part of her beleaguered eldest daughter, Ruth (Anastasia Robinson).
As other family members arrive, each with his or her own ongoing issue, the age-old problem of who cares for mom also begins to intrude. Ruth is worn out and ready to get out of the situation. But married sister Elizabeth (Patricia Portillo) and divorced sister Ursula (Alexandra Linn) have got kids and problems of their own—like Elizabeth’s beer-loving husband, Al (Andrew Adelsberger) to deal with. So, too, does their estranged brother, Ollie Jr. (Sean Pflueger) who himself has experienced a recent and complicated personal loss.
The opera’s late composer was comfortable with any number of classical and popular musical styles, so “Family Reunion” unfolds as an eclectic collection of sequential solo and ensemble numbers ranging from the modernist to neo-Romantic/Broadway to jazz, many of them catchy and clever.
As in grand opera tradition, all dialog/recitative is sung as well, although this, to some extent, is the weakest link in the opera’s current iteration. As Mr. Moses explained in an audience discussion after the conclusion of the opera, the sung dialog had been deliberately put together in the cadence of every day speech. But for this reviewer, at least, the patter, while realistic to be sure, seemed too mundane to be set to music, and spoken dialog might have been a better approach.
The singing was, in the main, quite good. Most impressive here were Laura Lewis—in her first stage appearance in two years—and Nephi Sanchez who impressed us a season or two ago in the Series’ updated version of Mozart’s “La clemenza di Tito.” Sean Pflueger and Andrew Adelsberger also turned in fine performances.
But the rest of the cast sang together well, including Brian Shaw as Ursula’s estranged older son Milo and young Alessandro Topa as her other son, Jason.
Notable solo and ensemble arias/songs included “Morning Star,” “New Grace”—an accomplished vocal octet—and the clever faux Andrews Sisters spoof aptly entitled “Sisters.” By and large, particularly for those in the audience who’ve learned over the years to fear any contemporary classical music composed after, say, 1945, there’s nothing to fear here and indeed, there is much to enjoy.
There were some problems with this production, however, as there often are in something that’s entirely new—particularly in an opera whose composer tragically passed away midstream.
We’ve already taken issue with at least some of the sung dialog. Other problems in this production of the work include the character of Milo, who really doesn’t have all that much to do, and the balance between the singers and the front-of-stage quartet, which sometimes overpowered them.
We’re not quarrelling here with the quality of the accompaniment, by the way, as the difficult score was nicely and crisply performed by the ensemble under Mr. Leavitt’s direction. But to this reviewer, the music really did seem to cry out for the fuller, more complex orchestra for which the opera was originally scored.
That said, however, a small performing arts company does the best it can with what’s available, and the In Series certainly scores high marks in this department. They also showed a lot more gumption than some of the area’s wealthier companies that traditionally choose to play things safe by sticking with known material.
An added plus—the accrual of personal and musical events provides a surprisingly emotional conclusion that that avoided melodrama while touching upon the contemporary meaning of tragedy. The singers were careful to bring all this about not by indulging in high drama, but by careful nuance and by paying attention to the individual, personal quirks and touches that delineated each character.
Like all new operas and all new shows, “A Family Reunion” could likely use a few tweaks here and there to improve the pace and limit the dry spots in the sung dialog.
But on the whole, this new opera is understandable, enjoyable, and above all addresses serious contemporary problems like what to do with ageing parents and lives that seem to have gone off once promising tracks due to contemporary stress. We highly recommend it during this, its final weekend, as a thought-provoking entertainment that serves to ring out the year in an unusually moving way.
And we hope this opera itself finds some traction in the months and years ahead.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half out of four stars)
The In Series production of “A Family Reunion” concludes this weekend at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. Performances are Friday December 6 at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, December 8 at 3 p.m.
Low cost parking (bonus!) is available just behind the theater in the Giant grocery store parking deck. (Be sure to get your ticket stamped at the GALA.)
Tickets: $20-38, including student and 65+ rates.
For tickets and information, call the Box Office at 202-204-7763, or visit the In Series website.
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