A problematic meeting between `Jefferson and Poe'

CRITIC'S CORNER

Music

November 22, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Jefferson and Poe, an interesting, if problematic, new opera by locally based composer Damon Ferrante and poet/biographer Daniel Mark Epstein, takes a what-if scenario and runs with it.

Epstein has a knack for putting historical figures into dual perspective, as his absorbing, elegantly written Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War attests. In Jefferson and Poe, he contrives a fictional encounter between the aging president and the needy poet, a meeting complicated by the issue of slavery and its role in the private life of the former chief executive.

The fanciful plot has possibilities for musical theater. But the music needs a stronger push from Ferrante, the theatrical side more power than the premiere cast generated Saturday at Theatre Project.

Setting lots of words to long, melisma-prone, melodic lines against a churning backdrop of dissonant, diffuse, often seemingly unrelated instrumental counterpoint does not a distinctive contemporary opera make.

But where the composer lets his lyrical impulses go, sometimes slipping in suggestions of American folk song, the results are effective. An aria for Jefferson's mistress Sarah (modeled after Sally Hemings), contemplating a life without slavery, is one example. And the a cappella musing by Poe as the opera ends is an unexpected, decidedly poetic touch.

Ferrante's method of dividing the score into sections, with the music stopping cold in between, might have made sense if stage director Amy Martin had figured out how to fill the silences.

Randal Woodfield didn't summon enough vocal or dramatic authority as Jefferson. (He had to look at his score through most of the performance.) Ryan Scott Ebright caught Poe's impulsiveness and sang expressively, although his baritone was short on color and texture. Leah Inger, as Jefferson's love child, Catherine, made telling use of her bright, flexible soprano.

Leah Brown's Sarah was sympathetically portrayed, more or less firmly sung. Rebecca Gordon and J. Austin Bitner excelled as the burgesses who act as a sort of Greek chorus in the opera. (These roles get some of Ferrante's most focused and colorful music.)

Conductor Francis Scully kept things on track for the most part, and the small orchestra handled its challenges admirably.

Peabody's `Falstaff'

Peabody Opera Theatre bravely charged into the vocal and orchestral horseplay of Verdi's Falstaff, scoring the most impressive points in the pit, where conductor Hajime Teri Murai unleashed the score's brilliant coloring and vitality Friday night, with the help of a very wired Peabody Symphony Orchestra.

Benjamin Park didn't have the tonal weight to fill out the rotund title character's music but had a good time with the comic activity. The rest of the cast rose to the occasion in generally respectable form. Taleesha Janine Scott went well beyond that as Nanetta, revealing a delicious shimmer to her voice and telling nuance in her phrasing.

Roger Brunyate directed the action through James M. Fouchard's accommodating set with his usual fluency and flair.

Monument Piano Trio

An die Musik's ensemble in residence, the excellent Monument Piano Trio, split in duos for most of its concert Saturday afternoon.

Dariusz Skoraczewski delivered a remarkably assured performance of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata - ruby red in tone color, white hot in expressive shading. His intense playing needed only more inner fire from pianist Michael Sheppard, whose remarks about the sonata could have been just a bit more useful than, "It's a great piece with a lot of good tunes."

Sheppard's playing was stronger when he backed Igor Yuzefovich in Grieg's C minor Violin Sonata. The violinist's unfailingly lyrical line and gleaming tone sent the music soaring.

The three musicians gave a taut account of a student work by Shostakovich, the Piano Trio No. 1, which meanders through various styles before, surprisingly, settling into romantic cliche.

Pro Musica Rara

The period-instrument ensemble Pro Musica Rara sounded better than ever Sunday afternoon at Towson Presbyterian Church.

Devoted to the English baroque, the program featured guest artist John Thiessen, a rare master of the valveless trumpet. He had the instrument singing not just in tune (hard enough), but expressively (harder still), through pieces by Purcell and Clarke, with colorful, polished support from cellist Allen Whear, violinists Cynthia Roberts and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Sharon Pineo Meyer and harpsichordist Amy Rosser.

Nontrumpet-centered pieces in this inviting blast from the past were likewise delivered with consistent technical smoothness and interpretive vitality.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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