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OPERA REVIEW
Emmeline / Friday, May 28, 2010
Carrie Hennessey (Emmeline), Cary Rosko (Aunt Hannah), Robert Stafford (Maguire), Will Hart Meyer (Matthew Gurney), Eileen Morris (Mrs. Bass), Brian Rosen (Henry Mosher), Melody Caspari (Sophie).
Nina Shuman, music director
Elly Lichenstein, stage director

Robert Stafford and Carrie Hennessey (Photo: E. Chazankin)

HENNESSEY TRIUMPHS IN CINNABAR'S WEST COAST PREMIERE OF TOBIAS PICKER'S EMMELINE

by Richard Riccardi
Friday, May 28, 2010

Cinnabar Theater continues to excel in the Northern California music world. This small company has once again raised the musical and theatrical bar in their terrific production of Tobias Picker’s 1996 opera “Emmeline” that opened a West Coast premiere May 28 to a boisterous full house in their small Petaluma theater.

“Emmeline” is a uniquely American story dealing with child labor, 19th century family values and the exceedingly difficult subject of incest. This challenging and utterly thrilling piece was carried off beautifully by the entire Cinnabar cast and crew. The character of Emmeline never leaves the stage for any significant time, and Carrie Hennessey in the title role is not only a consummate singer but a splendid actress. Seldom have I seen such an intensely believable operatic actress in such an intimate and personal setting. When a musical artist’s acting surpasses their exceptional vocal performance, you have nothing short of a stunning experience. Ms. Hennessey portrayed the naďve 13-year-old Emmeline and the Emmeline of 34 years with equal aplomb. Robert Stafford plays her nemesis, first as Mr. Maguire, then as Pastor Avery, with skill and understanding. Cary Ann Rosko gives a chilling performance in the role of Emmeline’s Aunt Hannah - an acerbic, pious but still human character working beautifully off of Hennessey’s sweetness. Other notable performances in this production include Brian Rosen as Henry Mosher, Joan Hawley as Sarah Mosher, Erin Ashe as Ella Burling, Eileen Morris as Mrs. Bass, Kimberly Anderman as Harriet Mosher and Melody Caspari as Sophie and the funniest of town gossips. Will Hart Meyer, as the young Matthew Gurney, managed to successfully execute the extreme vocal ranges of his character while acting with panache. Also impressive was Miguel Evangelista as Hooker, singing the composer’s rhythmically difficult angular phrases with accuracy and appropriate hysteria in the factory scene. Also of note in the same scene were Ms. Caspari and Ms. Morris, spinning gorgeous legato lines above the crazy jagged orchestral din of the factory.

Mr. Picker’s score is as balanced dramatically and musically as the above-mentioned factory scene, clearly reflecting the opposing dissonance and rare harmony of Emmeline’s life, and occasionally combining the two in a fashion completely true to the action and story. A testament to Mr. Picker’s score is that it is lush and romantic when necessary, even in this condensed orchestration, yet pointed and intricate when the story calls for that support. So often composers simply miss that all-important link to the complexities of the stage. Tobias Picker does not.

With set changes punctuated by projections acting as scene cards, the action flowed swiftly and smoothly. Cinnabar makes the most of its minimal space by the placement of key set pieces around a series of platforms of diverse heights, and this, along with the projections, creates a successful stage environment belying its small size. Directed with full respect to the story by Elly Lichenstein, there is not an awkward or false moment in this elegantly crafted production. In deft partnership with the stage action is Music Director Nina Shuman’s precise conducting and a skilled orchestra under her baton.

Special praise needs to go to the Cinnabar Girl’s chorus, many as young as fourteen. These young women performed this difficult score with professionalism and accuracy, dramatically enriching the opening-night with youthful, yet fully operatic, spine-chilling sound. Ms. Shuman trains them young, and trains them well.

The composer was in the audience for opening night and graciously took questions and comments from the audience following the performance.

“Emmeline” continues at Cinnabar through June 12 and details are at www.cinnabartheater.org. The production is exceptional with outstanding singing from the principals through the girl’s chorus, and the orchestra is sonorous. To experience this challenging opera is clearly an opportunity not to be missed.