Urban Arias, a scrappy assemblage founded six years ago by conductor Robert Wood, specializes in small-scale 21st-century American operas. It has premiered four of them and presented several others at various venues in and around the District. Its current production, running through Saturday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, reaches into the past and to distant shores with Michael Nyman’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
Nyman, a British composer best known for his atmospheric and stylized scores for such films as “Prospero’s Books,” “The Piano” and “The Draughtsman’s Contract,” has also written a number of short operas, and this work from 1986 comes out of a libretto by Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris, who adapted the book of the same name by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks. It describes Sacks’s efforts to diagnose a voice teacher in the early stages of a case of Alzheimer’s disease that atypically affected only one portion of his brain; he was unable to process visual information but was otherwise fully functional as a musician and could even defeat Sacks at chess.
The production, staged in the center’s smaller Sprenger Theatre, is well put together, if a bit cramped. A seven-piece orchestra off to the side limits things further, but intimacy has always been a hallmark of this company. The excellent cast (the patient, his wife and the doctor) does its best to interact with the 180 degrees of audience, and the hour-long piece goes by quickly.
At this past Saturday’s performance, baritone Jeffrey Beruan in the title role had the most pleasing voice, delivering Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht” with stunning power; soprano Emily Pulley’s wide vibrato obscured many words, though the quality was otherwise quite good. Tenor Ian McEuen (Sacks) showed some strain on his top notes, but he is a gifted, natural performer.
Pulley’s performance suggested a dramatic element that may or may not have been actually present; at the outset, she’s in denial about her husband’s condition, rationalizing away his problems. But at the end, she confesses to all sorts of enabling behaviors bordering on the extreme. Is the opera really about her? It could have been, but this was not satisfactorily drawn; perhaps had the work been longer, other aspects of the case could have been better explored.
Wood, the company’s founder, conducted with great feeling, though Nyman’s pulsating score offered little opportunity for the musicians to express such emotion; plus, there were some intonation issues here and there. But overall the musical level was highly professional.
The performance repeats Oct. 21 and 22. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993 or atlasarts.org.