The Janiec Opera Company‘s “Opera in a Box,” hosted by the Brevard Summer Music Festival, is a fantastic opportunity for opera lovers. Each summer the workshop produces a brand new, lightly-staged opera and gives audiences the chance to chat with the writers, directors, and performers after each concert.

2015’s “Opera in a Box” is Falling Angel, an adaptation of the novel by William Hjorstberg. As composer J. Mark Scearce explained in his program notes, many people know the story through Alan Parker‘s 1987 film Angel Heart. This opera provides yet another take on Hjorstberg’s horror-mystery.

Any new opera, even a slim and slick one like this, is a monumental undertaking bound to have shortcomings. Before I discuss the many reasons to go see this fascinating production, allow me to mention some of the work’s heroic failings. 

Lucy Thurber‘s libretto is well-structured and lean, but the dialog is excessively terse and literal. Moments that could have been transcendent, like Harry and Epiphany’s recognition of each other, fall flat when the characters tell us exactly how they feel. Some subtle poetry at these most expressive moments would be welcome. But Thurber’s economy is also a strength. The libretto never suffers from pretense, confusion, or clumsiness, and it combines seamlessly with the music and action. Her management of the narrative arc as a whole is careful and controlled. Thurber is a deft playwright, and her theater credentials ultimately served this production well.

Scearce’s musical strengths also shine through in the large-scale processes rather than the immediate details. His text setting is sometimes stiff, lacking rhythmic vitality. Aesthetically, his music sits in an uncomfortable neutral territory. Scearce gets a lot of mileage out of pastiche: there are quotes from Bach and Dowland alongside 1940s Blues and Jazz, and delicious Darmstadt-esque non-tonal chords spiking out of sentimental Broadway tunes. But the borrowings are somewhat clumsily dropped into place, neither integrating with Scearce’s own language nor bursting forth in a jarring, psychedelic collage.

But, as did Thurber, Scearce managed to serve the large arc extremely well. His management of energy is precise, and his motivic development is water-tight and multi-faceted. Scearce’s conflation, nuancing, and transformation of narrative ideas through music is almost Mahlerian.

Finally a small complaint about the staging: the performers play both individual characters and a collective chorus, animating Harry Angel’s inner demons. The device itself is brilliant, but the demons’ ghoulish dancing and wiggling is silly. Even a motionless chorus would have been infinitely more terrifying.

Onto the good side: Falling Angel is a magnificently intricate mystery. Like the best detective stories, this opera tells us two plus two, but never four. Every element – score, libretto, staging, lighting, and performance, was powerfully restrained and controlled. It’s hard to think of an analogy for this production’s delicate assembly of narrative: gymnastic jenga? aerobatic toothpick architecture?

The staging, costuming, and lighting are minimal but remarkably atmospheric and effective. As mentioned, each singer performs a dual role as character and chorus member. Additionally, three of the singers play multiple characters. Dean Anthony devised a brilliant solution to managing this multiplicity. Rather than complicated and potentially clumsy entrances and exits, all of the singers are present on stage throughout the performance. When not performing, the singers are seated on an arc of stools at the back of the stage, facing away from the audience. Their constant presence and transparency becomes a fluid anonymity. Stunning!

Eric Norbury‘s lighting is just right. Using simple uplighting on the rear curtains, Norbury gives each scene a brushstroke of mood. His work transforms the modest dimensions of Morrison Playhouse into a supple and expressive space.

The vocalists are supremely confident and emotive. Adam Wells is especially nimble in transitioning between the ominous, snarky Detective Deimos and the bright-eyed Young Soldier. Nicholas Smith has the unenviable task of playing the devil himself (“Louis Cyphre”), and he provides the requisite sinister bearing in spades.

Ruby White plays a warm and honest Epiphany Proudfoot, and her tender meeting with Harry is a high point (not just in pitch). 

Harry Angel is the opera’s central character, and Matthew Queen’s performance in the spotlight is rock steady. His articulation is clear and his voice dynamic. Expect this singer to tackle major roles in the near future.

I must reiterate that, despite their expected and forgivable flaws, Thurber and Scearce produced a tight and dramatically effective opera. In conjunction with Anthony’s stage direction, Norbury’s lighting, and a wonderfully colorful and solid cast, they gave Hjorstberg’s novel a new and thrilling medium. I am especially proud to see a new opera produced here in North Carolina. 

Friends, please go see this production! 

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