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Opera review: Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Green Sneakers’

By — Charles Downey,

When John Adams’s “Nixon in China” finally came to the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, Max Frankel, a reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the historic presidential visit, asked, “So what does the resonance of reality do for art? And what does art owe to reality?”

These questions hung in the air over a meagerly attended performance of Ricky Ian Gordon’s one-act autobiographical opera “Green Sneakers” on Friday night, presented by UrbanArias. The venue, Arlington’s Artisphere, is having its own financial struggles: According to a recent report, its admission and ticket income is being estimated at an amount 75 percent lower than its planners expected.

“Green Sneakers” is really a staged song cycle, the composer’s poetic monologue about the death of his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, from AIDS in the 1990s. A lone singer takes the role of Gordon, ruminating on memories inspired by the eponymous footwear, a troublesome reminder of Grossi’s final months.

Baritone Ian Greenlaw commanded the stage with a calm presence, avoiding the extreme of over-emoting, and only the topmost notes of the part were not quite in the compass of his otherwise burnished voice. The young Adelphi String Quartet, the graduate quartet-in-residence at the University of Maryland, played the instrumental part of the score beautifully, with the first violinist attempting to coordinate this conductor-less performance, not always successfully. A bare-bones staging, directed by Kevin Newbury, added little that a concert performance could not have accomplished.

It is not the first time that Gordon has mined this part of his life for an opera: UrbanArias is also presenting the composer’s “Orpheus and Euridice,” a companion piece inspired by the same events and, by all reports, a more successful work. The sincerity of Gordon’s feelings is never in doubt in the honest, even unvarnished “Green Sneakers,” but the confessional tone is also a liability, aggravated by a cloying harmonic vocabulary that strays perilously close to Broadway, especially in the final song, for which Greenlaw impressively played the introduction at the piano.

Many composers have made the ill-advised decision to use their own libretto, so lines in Gordon’s text such as “coughing until I thought he would morph into a Mobius strip” come as no surprise. The direct manner of words and music may have the “resonance of reality,” but the somewhat transparent result seems to merit Gordon’s own line about how “operas come and go.”

— Charles Downey

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