The Secret Agent, Michael Dellaira (world premiere)
The Center for Contemporary Opera
18th March, 2011
Blood and Dirt
A new opera elicits both anticipation and trepidation in audience members (will it be great? will I snooze? will there be tonality for me to hang my hat on?), and the world premiere of Michael Dellaira and J.D. McClatchy’s The Secret Agent satisfied elements of both. With a mostly excellent cast and creative team, The Center for Contemporary Opera has lovingly produced a show that boasts high production values, accessible music and a compelling story, and the distinct possibility of future productions.
Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel and play of the same name provide the plot, loosely based upon a terrorist incident in 1894 London. The story revolves around governmental conspiracy, senseless destruction, and both the humanity and variable motives of conspirators. The opera is timely for post–9/11 America, both relevant and removed enough so as not to be too uncomfortable, playing as film noir or Dickensian fiction, instead of reality.
Verloc, a mediocre double agent (German, turned by the British), is instigated by the German ambassador to blow up the Greenwich Conservatory. Complacently associated with a motley group of ineffective British anarchists who provide him with banter and explosives, Verloc runs a pornography shop as a cover, aided by his doting wife Winnie, who also cares for Stevie, her mentally disabled brother. Verloc bungles the bombing, blowing up his trusting brother-in-law in an accident that ultimately proves fatal for Verloc as well.
Laura Jellinek’s excellent unit set, papered in sepia photographic enlargements suggesting Conrad’s London, offered many levels and locales, efficiently allowing multiple scenes to be viewed concurrently. Sam Helfrich’s able direction found visually dramatic contrast in the ballroom scenes with socialite couples dancing in elitist revelry, the coarse but tender home life of Verloc, Winnie and Stevie, and the sordid underground meetings of the conspirators above Verloc’s pornography shop. The real drama however, was found in the interpersonal interaction of Verloc’s family and his fellow conspirators; scenes (such as the beginning of Act 2) that lacked the charisma of these lead singers faltered in strength, giving an uneven quality to the storytelling.
Scott Bearden as the burly Verloc led the cast with a visceral baritone that seemed to pour out effortlessly with brilliance and textual clarity, lending some touching humanity to what on paper is an unsympathetic character. As Winnie, Verloc’s wife, Amy Burton paced her character as well as her voice in an effective dramatic arc; her initial mousiness and gentle silvery tone in Act 1 grew into a passionate battle of love and grief in Act 2 as she keens, “He took my heart and blew it to shreds… blood and dirt…” Her subtle descent into madness following her murder of Verloc was so personal and understated, and so gorgeously sung while encompassing the direct and brutal imagery, that she held the final moments of the opera in her palm.
Jonathan Blalock’s effortless tenor was sensitively used as Stevie, and his characterization was sympathetically youthful. Of the rest of the cast, the conspirators were all strongly portrayed; Aaron Theno’s “soft” Michaellis treated us to lovely timbre and phrasing and Matthew Garrett’s moustached Ossipon was smarmy and convincingly sung. Bass Matt Boehler gave a darkly villainous portrayal of the cynical Professor that was only occasionally effortful when thwarted by some heavy, fast text, but he had plenty of opportunity to showcase his warm tone, as well as a beautiful voix mixte in the top.
On the side of the law, Jason Papowitz’s Inspector Heat had some nice moments, and brought empathetic charm to the final scene with Winnie. The Police Commissioner (David Neal) and the German Ambassador (Andrew Cummings) made good effort, but did not have quite the gravitas to counter the force of Bearden and Boehler, or the volume to cut through the orchestration. The Ladies of the party scenes (Jodi Karem, Deborah Lifton, Kate Oberjat, Sarah Miller, and Cherry Duke) sang well and looked ravishing in Melissa Schlachtmeyer’s sumptuous costumes.
Sara Jobin conducted a clear reading of Dellaira’s score, which conveyed the menacing nature of the plot effectively but seemed square at times. J.D. McClatchy’s libretto subtly bordered on poetic, but it could have been better served by more idiomatic text setting. Each member of the cast was covered by heavy orchestration at points, with Bearden a notable exception, but they all made the best of vocal writing that was not always ideal. The voices seemed challenged to sit in the extremes of their ranges, and vocal lines were often awkwardly low for the women in particular.
The evening's greatest success lay in the successful storytelling of the performers, and the quality of the story itself. The gray areas of morality, social antagonism, and human experience are fertile ground for character development and intrigue, and The Secret Agent shows us what human tragedy can occur in the lives of flawed people, even terrorists.
Bottom line: The story takes the limelight.
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Composer – Michael Dellaira
Librettist – J.D. McClatchy (after the novel by Joseph Conrad)
Conductor – Sara Jobin
Director – Sam Helfrich
Lighting Designer – Eric Southern
Set Designer – Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer – Melissa Shlachtmeyer
Wig and Hair Designer – Becky Bodhurtha
(in order of appearance)
1st Secretary/Singer/Constable – Nathan Resika
The Ambassador – Andrew Cummings
Lady Mabel – Jodi Karem
Adolf Verloc – Scott Bearden
Prime Minister – Mark Zuckerman
Winnie Verloc – Amy Burton
Stevie – Jonathan Bialock
Ossipon – Matthew Garrett
Michaellis – Aaron Theno
The Professor – Matt Boehler
The Commissioner – David Neal
Chief Inspector Heat – Jason Papowitz
Lady Millicent – Deborah Lifton
Lady Isabel – Kate Oberjat
Lady Verena – Sarah Miller
Lady Olive – Cherry Duke