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The East Carolina University School of Music has broken new and exciting ground with the premiere of Mark Taggart's opera The Dreamer. In a time when neither musicians nor audience could come together in the usual way, this performance makes the opera available to a large audience. The spare libretto was written by Ann McCutchan. Daniel Shirley was the director.
The stars of this show are undergraduate Koby Gallman (The Tented Man) and graduate students Christian Powell (The Dreamer) and Erica Timmerman (The Confidante); they were joined by a chorus of Payton Parker, Veronica Rice, Aiyana Mourino, Alanna Perrin, Nicholas Mackey, and Evan Martschenko, all ECU students. The performance was accompanied by an unnamed chamber orchestra, led by music director J. Christopher Buddo, with Eric Stellrecht, pianist and musical coordinator.
As explained by Shirley in an ECU press release, "The Dreamer . . . tries to conquer internal demons that hold her back. It's the story of The Dreamer finding courage, and she has people who inhibit her or help her along the way." Taggart elaborates in the same press release, “It's a nightmare. It's not about the surface; it's what lies underneath. The imagery is drawn from that. Dreams are a very effective way of getting beneath the surface."
The film begins with the howling of the wind as the camera zooms in on a drawing of a luminous church steeple. In addition to the steeple, the only set piece is a flight of steps; all other scenes are recorded in front of a black background. Other effects include slow motion filming of the sky. A close-up of The Dreamer's eye is backed by a voice-over of her first singing lines. Soon she is joined musically by the chorus. A major visual of the film is the huge number of masks worn by the characters. In addition to the masks, the leading characters are lavishly dressed in costumes as fanciful as the masks. The Dreamer is dressed in robes of heavy blue with elaborate gold trim, The Tented Man is in all black, with the layers frequently being blown around him by a wind machine, and The Confidante is in gold and gray with diaphanous sleeves. The masks are truly fantastic and phantasmagoric. (The only exception was The Confidante's headdress of horns, made of some wiggly substance like rubber or silicone – this piece was humorous and distracting.)
The instrumental accompaniment is by turns twitchy and brusque, alternating with lush strings. There is interesting percussion. Meanwhile, all the vocal parts are both written and performed in a deliberate style that makes the melody and lyrics extremely easy to understand. Powell's singing is measured and even. However, the video's obsessive focus on her eyes does no one a favor. Gallman, no stranger to this reviewer, sang with warmth and focus. He portrayed the sinister nature of The Tented Man successfully. Unfortunately, the six chorus singers were hardly distinguishable behind their masks. Martschenko alone stood out, singing difficult parts with intricate techniques.
A musical high point is Timmerman's lyrical singing of the almost aria-like "Trust your feet" in Act IV. There is a lot of interesting music over the 40-odd minute course of the opera, but few catchy tunes or memorable phrases. The recorded premiere was engaging the whole way through; after the first viewing, the Youtube format allows one to dip back into the work and repeat parts at will, which promotes an easier understanding of what might otherwise be a somewhat inaccessible piece.
The new format, a first for ECU, will undoubtedly be followed with similar performances. Watch ECU Opera Theater's performance of The Dreamer here.