Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Prototype Festival - Dog Days - 01/10/16

Composer: David T. Little
Librettist: Royce Vavrek
Director: Robert Woodruff
Chamber Orchestra: Newspeak
Lisa: Lauren Worsham
Father (Howard): James Bobick
Mother: Marnie Breckenridge
Michael Marcotte: Elliott
Peter Tantsits: Pat
Captain: Cherry Duke
Prince: John Kelly

There's no better way to celebrate a new year than with new exciting artistic endeavors, and that is just what the still relatively small-scale, but definitely feisty Prototype Festival has been offering for the past three years now, consistently feeding its followers a steady diet of new and original works that always challenge and often conquer even the most blasé of New Yorkers.
Premiered in Montclair, New Jersey, back in 2012, the opera Dog Days finally made its long-overdue New York debut in this year's festival preceded by a sterling reputation, never the seemingly depressing subject matter. So just as the sky cleared up after a morning worthy of The Flood, I made my way to the Village and NYU in balmy temperatures before taking my seat among an impressive crowd in the comfortable Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

Tolstoy once famously wrote that if all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and I could not help but think of that quote on Sunday afternoon as I was witnessing a dreadfully unhappy working-class family trying to survive in dreadfully grim, vaguely post-war circumstances. Based on a short story by Judy Budnitz, Dog Days could have easily turned into a hopeless downer, but Royce Vavrek's richly satisfying libretto and David T. Little's wildly inventive score made sure it did not.
That said, no matter how promising the original ingredients were, it is hard to imagine a production coming together as powerfully as that one without the resolutely fearless, incredibly tight cast that has been whole-heartedly and winningly committed to the project from Day One.
As the teenage daughter Lisa, the charismatic soprano Lauren Worsham sensitively conveyed the perfect combination of sweetness, madness and dignity. Her two arias   ̶  First befriending the dog-man with child-like innocence and later heartbreakingly marveling in front of her mirror on how her constant state of starvation had given her a model's body   ̶  were the undisputed highlights of the afternoon. Her final act, which she performed without uttering a single word, made the dramatic ending even more devastating.
As her long-suffering mother, soprano Marnie Breckenridge exuded haunting vulnerability as she constantly struggled to keep a semblance of normal life. On the other hand, baritone James Bobick was all loud and pent-up rage as the increasingly frustrated father. Tenors Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits also did very well as the immature, never-do-well brothers.
In the silent role of a man inexplicably looking and behaving like a dog, performance and visual artist John Kelly routinely became the center of the attention every time he appeared, always mysterious, and yet eventually turning into a somewhat reassuringly familiar figure.
The set was appropriately gritty and smartly outfitted with a large video screen hanging over the stage. From the pale lights mercilessly projected onto the dirty, sweaty bodies to the drab costumes unable to protect from the harsh elements, everything relentlessly oozed misery and gloominess. The space was ingeniously used so that the various characters could easily move around while still efficiently creating a creepily dark and claustrophobic atmosphere as hunger and desperation were slowly but surely driving everybody to madness.
Boldly mixing opera's long-held traditions such as show-topping arias with aggressive electric guitars and other modern sound effects, David T. Little significantly contributed to the general feeling of tension and bleakness with a downright accessible score that expertly switched from moments of earth-shattering intensity to scenes of poignant beauty. The terrific chamber ensemble Newspeak gave it a vibrant and colorful life from behind the stage, always present, but never intruding.
As for the decision to mike the singers, although it may make sense when it comes to projecting particularly subtle sounds, I still found it regrettable because the devices ironically overpowered some of the subtle emotions that can only be fully expressed by unadulterated human voices. The singing on that stage was clearly of the highest caliber, and it would have been nice to be able to enjoy it au naturel.
This small nitpicking aside, my musical year has unquestionably started with an all-out resounding bang, and I can only hope to keep this tremendous momentum going for the next eleven months and a half.

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