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Unhappy in their own ways

Curtis Opera Theatre and Opera Philadelphia present Riders to the Sea’ and Empty the House’

4 minute read
Symbolism and poetry: ‘Riders to the Sea’ as opera. (Photo by William Brown Photography.)
Symbolism and poetry: ‘Riders to the Sea’ as opera. (Photo by William Brown Photography.)

Family tragedy abounds in Curtis Opera Theatre’s season closer, a double bill of music dramas that consider the fraught relationships between mothers and their children. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s adaptation of J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea pairs with Empty the House, a contemporary work by Opera Philadelphia composer-in-residence Rene Orth. Although the pieces cut across cultures and time periods, they show how certain questions about the blood-deep bonds between people continue to occupy the minds of writers and musicians.

Kinship to the stories

Director Mary Birnbaum reinforces this connection in her production, which begins with a preshow pantomime that finds the performers cast as parental figures in each opera getting into costume onstage. Mezzo Sophia Maekawa (Maurya in Riders) and soprano Tiffany Townsend (Brenda in Empty the House) could not be costumed (by Amanda Seymour) more differently—one wears the dour peasant rags of Ireland’s Aran Islands while the other dons the kind of contemporary sweater-set and slacks you’d see on dozens of women today. Yet this wordless bit of extratextual acting suggests a strong kinship to their stories that only intermittently emerges elsewhere in Birnbaum’s stylish but somewhat hollow staging.

Synge in song

The fairly straightforward approach to Riders meets with more overall success than Empty the House, which still feels like a work in progress on nearly all levels. (Curtis premiered the chamber opera in 2016, with a different cast and director.) Set designer Grace Laubacher is effective in rendering the small cottage that has become a shrine to death and misery, as the male members of a devout Catholic family perish at the hands of their unforgiving country terrain. Vaughan Williams set Synge’s play nearly word for word—as it begins, the remains of one son are discovered as the last living boy, Bartley, prepares to ride toward his sad destiny.

Synge blended symbolist imagery and lyrical poetry in his writing, qualities well captured by Williams’s haunting score. Conductor Daniela Candillari draws emotional playing from the Curtis orchestral forces, whipping up the torrential fervor of the elements before segueing naturally to mournful, speculative passages near the end. Sopranos Lindsey Reynolds and Merissa Beddows make particularly strong impressions as Cathleen and Nora, the sisters who must control their emotions as mother Maurya delves deeper into existential darkness. Both earn high marks, too, for convincingly adopting an Irish dialect in their singing that doesn’t sound too cloying or overstated.

They could be any family: Emily Damasco and Olivia Smith in ‘Riders to the Sea.’ (Photo by William Brown Photography.)
They could be any family: Emily Damasco and Olivia Smith in ‘Riders to the Sea.’ (Photo by William Brown Photography.)

The human drama in Riders comes from Maurya’s unwillingness to bless Bartley before he takes his fateful ride. Maekawa and baritone Patrick Wilhelm affectingly convey the anguish of the moment, which still burns with uncomfortable recognition more than a century after Synge’s play premiered. This could be any family, any culture, any moment of shortsightedness and destructive pride. Unfortunately, though, Maekawa’s mezzo turns grainy during Maurya’s final monologue, and she doesn’t display the acting skills necessary to fully express the gravity of this mother’s substantial, irrevocable loss.

Remote characters

The action transitions to Empty the House without a pause, as Laubacher’s initial set gives way to a dingy little house in the Houston suburbs, brashly lighted by Anshuman Bhatia. Orth and librettist Mark Campbell set their story in 1995, when a young woman named Faith (soprano Sophia Hunt) returns home after a long estrangement to help her mother (Townsend) move out of the family home. Like most family tragedies, the walls of the domicile contain dozens of memories, secrets, and resentments—most of them connected to Paul (Wilhelm), who died of AIDS a decade earlier.

Campbell’s libretto leans on well-established tropes and stereotypical dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lifetime movie. Although Hunt, Townsend, and Wilhelm act with admirable commitment, the characters still feel remote by the end of the hourlong piece. Backstory is revealed piecemeal throughout, in a way that fails to coalesce into a compelling portrait of how a once loving family became irretrievably separated.

They could be any family: Emily Damasco and Olivia Smith in ‘Riders to the Sea.’ (Photo by William Brown Photography.)
They could be any family: Emily Damasco and Olivia Smith in ‘Riders to the Sea.’ (Photo by William Brown Photography.)

More from Orth

For her part, Orth supplies an interesting score that blends elements of minimalism, jarring percussion, and electronic effects to create an unsettling sound world that reflects the discord of the situation. Occasionally, the result goes too far. The repetitious underlaying of a dripping faucet grows annoying after a while, especially as it doesn’t seem to connect with any elements of the story. And during Faith’s climactic aria, the orchestra’s bombast rendered Hunt practically inaudible. (The singers in the prior Curtis production wore body microphones—an artistic choice, or so it seemed at the time—but this version appeared to be unamplified.)

The writing suits Townsend, who possesses an expansive but hard-edged soprano and favors liberal amounts of vibrato. As Brenda, her body language and manner suggest restraint and the creeping infirmities of age, even as she unleashes impressive vocal power. Wilhelm displays a nicely produced baritone, though the sound is somewhat hooded and lacking a variety of color. There’s nothing he can do to avoid the stereotypical foundation of his character, who comes straight from the "tragic, saintly gay" playbook.

Orth has talent to spare—surely, we will hear more from her as her career matures. We should hear more too from Vaughan Williams, whose five completed operas are rarely produced. (He’s better known for his art songs and orchestral works.) But without a doubt, we will continue to be confronted with tales of unhappy families and how they cope, or don’t, with their anguish.

What, When, Where

Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams and J.M. Synge and Empty the House by Rene Orth and Mark Campbell. Directed by Mary Birnbaum. Curtis Opera Theatre and Opera Philadelphia. May 2-5, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theatre, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 732-8400 or

The Kimmel Center is wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or by emailing [email protected].

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