American Opera Theater
American Opera Theater, a small fledgling group in residence at Georgetown University, presented its opening production over the weekend in the school's comfortable Gonda Theater. Titled "Ground: An Exploration Through the Cycle of Life," the work consisted of 19 vocal and instrumental works by Italian composers of the early baroque period (Monteverdi, Cavalli, Merula and a few others) performed by a cast of two and an instrumental ensemble of three. The title refers to the unifying formal element of the various numbers -- mostly chaconnes and other pieces set over a ground bass, or continually recurring bass line.
Conceived and directed by Timothy Nelson, "Ground" had no plot other than a general, stylized progression of the two characters -- soprano Elizabeth Baber and countertenor Brian Cummings -- from first love to marriage and childbirth and then to old age and death. Some of the staging was charming in its blend of simplicity and cleverness, such as when the characters sang while rolling themselves up, on the floor, in a white silk runner, one toward the other. Many such bits were obscure in meaning, but winsome.
However, with the sameness of tessitura and the repetitive nature of the songs (singers often in canon or plain imitation), one began to wish for more action, or visuals of any kind. The projections were often little more than selective surtitles, and the few images that were used bespoke a tight budget.
The singers sang, acted and moved impressively overall. Baber had some trouble with breath support in her low register, and her Italian vowels sounded distinctly American. Cummings was vocally assured, if not always in tune. The instrumentalists somehow kept their place through all the incessant repetitions (except once in the eighth piece) and produced a lovely, blended sonority.
-- Robert Battey
Kennedy Center 'Circus'
Acrobats swung from ropes, beat boxing combined with Buddhism, and the U.S. Army Field Band Soldiers' Chorus joined the National Symphony Orchestra, all in the first half of the Kennedy Center's "Underground Circus" Open House Arts Festival on Saturday.
The free, all-day festival is part of the Kennedy Center's prelude to the 2007-2008 season, and it's hard to imagine what could have been done to stir up more excitement. Morning acts included rock-and-roll circus troupe the Perfect Unknowns, the Zany Umbrella Circus, Naval Academy jazz ensemble the Next Wave, swing band Blue Sky 5, and the NSO. Akim Funk Buddha, a group billed as martial arts hip-hop, was especially intriguing, demonstrating phenomenal body and voice control and techniques ranging from break dancing to Mongolian throat singing.
A parade of tumblers, men and women on unicycles and stilts, and a brass band tramped through the plaza at 3, leading up to performances by Asian American drumming group Portland Taiko, Cuban salsa ensemble Aramis y su Orquesta Ashe, and a lovely Balanchine program by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The day culminated in an indie rock concert featuring Ben Kweller, who easily flitted from piano to guitar for thoughtful, endearing ballads, upbeat rock and even a "trucker song." He brought a drummer and bassist but was at his best alone at the piano for "Thirteen," which also showed off his harmonica skills.
Throughout the day, the NSO Instrument "Petting Zoo" and Washington National Opera's "Costume Trunk" gave children a chance to enter the world of maestros and divas, making the season introduction a complete interactive experience.