Reprinted from yesterday's early editions
Opera SW, one of the most imaginative musical or theatrical companies in town, performed three operas in less than two hours last weekend at the Wolf Trap Barns. Or perhaps it was seven operas. The one in the middle, "Fables," was made up of five pieces, lasting a few minutes each, that do not have to be performed together. The source for all this music was Ned Rorem, who habitually sets English words to music more intelligently and sensitively than any other living composer.
Flanking "Fables" were a murder mystery with text by Gertrude Stein and "Bertha," an epic about a mad Norwegian queen, with text by Kenneth Koch. These pieces made up an evening of bright, literate opera stripped to its essentials, with pianist Edward Roberts performing as a first-class orchestra surrogate amid minimal scenery and costumes.
Most of the production budget went to "Bertha," a medieval costume drama that includes three wars and several summary executions in its zany plot. The results were hilarious, with great credit going to Ann Fox Conrad in the title role, a statuesque mezzo and fearsome spear carrier who manages to call Carol Burnett to mind while maintaining musical credibility. She had sterling support from a properly epic cast of 10 singers.
The Gertrude Stein opera is "Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters," a remarkably lucid work that includes four murders and a suicide in its plot -- par, no doubt, for an opera with five characters. Being by Stein, it is not really about murder and suicide but about role playing and the nature of reality. Outstanding in a generally fine cast was Elizabeth Kirkpatrick, whose suicide scene is one of the funniest theatrical moments in recent memory.
There were episodes of slight vocal unease, fairly well distributed through the casts, but nothing serious. On the whole, the company sounded enormously better at the Barns than in the problematic acoustics of the church where they usually perform. The Barns may be the best auditorium for opera in English anywhere in town -- even in a town that includes the Terrace Theater. Every syllable of the Stein opus came across with total clarity, and nearly every syllable of the Koch. Rorem's music was, as always, charmingly melodious (though sharp-edged in the modern style), eminently singable and faithful to the needs of the texts. His ensemble writing was particularly fine.
There were problems of clarity in "Fables," based on works of La Fontaine, and the reason was probably the convoluted structures and arcane vocabulary of translator Marianne Moore. It may be possible to sing such lines as "without subterfuge, braving the consequence,/Let each search his conscience." But it is almost impossible to project them across the footlights with full clarity and impact. Still, this opus had many diverting moments and notable performances -- for example, Mary Pat Finucane as a formidable fox, Paul McIlvaine as a dandy lion, and Debora Madsen's excellent roles of bird and donkey.