Operagasm Exclusive Review: Angel of the Amazon
by Sarah Heisler
Since its inception in 1975, Encompass New Opera Theatre has tried to champion contemporary American opera and develop new audiences for the medium, and its world premiere production of Angel of the Amazon, a new music drama by Evan Mack has done just that. The two-act work is based on the life of Sister Dorothy Stang , who lived and worked among the indigenous farmers of Brazil, fighting for the protection of the Amazonian Rainforest before she was brutally murdered in 2005 by emissaries of the logging companies. Using forty years of letters as source material, Mack manages to craft an interesting and affecting narrative as the action skips from the “present day” of Sr. Dorothy’s death back and forth through time, starting with her first day in the jungle in 1969.
The intimate Jerome Robbins Theatre in the beautiful Baryshnikov Arts Center seems ideally suited to new works; the resident company in the theatre is the famed and innovative Wooster Group. The production design of John Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly enhanced the minimal set with the steady use of projections onto an inverted V of 4 wings of muslin or scrim and a cyclorama. An additional moveable screen provided a frame for clarifying year and place supertitles (think Les Miserables’ time-traveling supertitles). The projections transported the audience from the rain forest to the office of a bishop to the inside of a small hut to the Capitol building all without feeling contrived; it was so masterfully executed as to make opera aficionados wonder why one couldn’t simply replace the monstrous “machine” of the current Met Ring cycle with this more effective and less troublesome projection concept.
Director Nancy Rhodes, who is also Artistic Director of the company, guided the company through one of the most affecting and nuanced productions imaginable. While the singing and acting was generally quite good, it was the confident directing that created much of the emotional impact and brought the composer’s vision to the audience. There was not a moment that was lazy or had not been thought out, yet there was nothing manipulative about the experience. No one was bludgeoned with meaning; the material simply spoke for itself.
With a new work there it is always interesting to listen as the composer introduces his musical language. The sections of the story in the “present” time were full of long sustained stringers and atmosphere, which made an interesting contrast with the thicker textures, harmonies, and native rhythms of the flashbacks. Musical theater lovers might hear echoes of Jason Robert Brown’s introspective power, Stephen Sondheim’s peerless narrative style, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s unflinching use of chromaticism. However to say that Mack’s work is anything but his own would be to do him a disservice. This music is new and inspiringly brave in its breadth, and yet it is easily accessible to an audience that might have been wary of “modern opera.” The true joys were the Act One quintet and the frequent choral numbers, which were written with an obvious understanding of how voices work together to create something bigger. Mack’s truly beautiful libretto was refreshingly strong. Luiz’s Act Two aria was particularly poignant in its expression of anguished doubt. “What does it take to live the life that you wanted?” He rails at God, “I’ve seen what you did to your only son… what will you do to my dream?”
In the title role of Sister Dorothy, mezzo-soprano Caitlin Mathes possessed a bright and engaging voice with penetrating focus that was shown to its best in the upper range when she opened up and supported. Her acting was truly remarkable; never did one question that this fresh and pretty twenty-something singer was a nun living out her life from her late thirties till her death at seventy three. At times, however, more vocal gravitas would have been welcome; occasionally she simply sounded too young.
The standout performance came from baritone José Rubio as the passionate farmer Luiz. His commanding voice had a depth and presence that was enhanced by natural and crisp diction. His handsome sound was consistent through his generous range. This is a role that star baritones should clamor to sing. Bass-baritone Elex Lee Vann made an strong impression in his multiple roles of gunman, logging company representative, and native farmer. His hearty yet chilling opening solo prepared the way for an evening of evenly beautiful and sturdy singing. Baritone Justin Ryan used his instrument with authority and style in his dual roles of the Bishop and the second gunman. Tenor Adam Russell did not fare as well in his roles of multi-generational landowners. His sizeable tenor was occasionally throaty and tight and turned strident at the top.
The orchestra, ably led by Music Director Mara Waldman, was comprised of marimba, guitar, violins, celli, and two pianos and the amazingly textured sound makes it hard to imagine telling this story with any other grouping. Ultimately this work is almost a love letter to Sr. Dorothy; she is portrayed as such a saint that it is sometimes hard to see with her as a real person. Still, this exciting music gives a voice to a truly important story and Encompass New Opera Theatre has given a voice to a truly important new composer.
Sarah Heisler, soprano, began the 2011 season making her debut with Bel Cantanti Opera in the role of Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri. She holds a Bachelor of Music from James Madison University, where she recently appeared in the title role in their production of Carmen. The rich-voiced former mezzo-soprano has also been seen as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Second Witch in Dido and Aeneas and La Badessa in Suor Angelica. She has appeared for the past three seasons with the Caramoor International Music Festival, where her credits include La forza del destino, L’elisir d’amore, Semiramide, and Norma. In 2007 she received the opportunity to tour with the JMU Opera in Germany program, and sang the Erste Knabe in Die Zauberflöte in a production that toured Chemnitz and Döbeln. She will next be seen as a Young Artist at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival, and will appear as part of the inaugural season of the BlackCreek Music Festival in Toronto, also under the baton of Maestro Maazel.