"To hell with convention!" Frank Lloyd Wright spits out in a scene from "Shining Brow," an opera about his early life. It's a disingenuous moment. Yes, Wright, the visionary architect, left his wife for a client's wife, with whom he lived openly until she and her two children were murdered in one of his signature houses, Taliesin — to hell with convention, indeed. But Wright's line (in a libretto by the Irish poet Paul Muldoon) is delivered in the context of an opera that cleaves to convention, and although that convention is a good one — involving big tunes and wonderful dense vocal ensembles from the composer, Daron Hagen — it is a jolting reminder that this piece, for all of its strong music and strong words, is not at all the kind of cutting-edge work that Wright himself was known for.
"Shining Brow" is contemporary — it is being presented in Washington this week by UrbanArias, a company that specializes in short chamber operas of recent decades — but it is not new. The opera's original version had its premiere in 1993, in Wisconsin, at a time when Hagen and his team (including the director Stephen Wadsworth) had such momentum that the piece attracted considerable attention. It has been performed several times since, in various versions; the one UrbanArias is presenting strips away the choruses, auxiliary characters and full orchestra, turning it into a work for a seven-piece chamber orchestra and five principal singers that lasts a little more than an hour.
That the abridgment works shows the opera's solidity (you could do this with "Aida" too). That the opera has been around, and performed, for more than 20 years gives it a certain assurance, and "Shining Brow" is pretty assured to begin with. Saturday's opening-night cast made much of Hagen's singable melodies, trusting the score enough to present it as music rather than, as so often happens especially with new work, a problem to be tackled.
If there is a problem, it's that much of the hour is pitched at the same heightened emotional temperature, in a work that deals with the interleaving of emotional themes across several different relationships — the abandonment of Louis Sullivan, Wright's mentor (the tenor Robert Baker), and of Catherine, his wife (the outstanding mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle, her voice dark and warm and a tangible anchor in the ensembles); the betrayal of Edwin Cheney, Wright's client, whose wife leaves him (the bass Ben Wager, also excellent both dramatically and vocally). As the loyal but disillusioned lover, Mamah Cheney, Miriam Khalil had the most stereotyped role (the genius's helpmeet), and the most challenging, climax-studded vocal line. As Wright, the fine baritone Sidney Outlaw sounded a little vocally pale at times but worked his way into a tricky role. The character is supposed to be a little distanced, a little awkward, breaking through to feelings only at moments, and ending the whole thing with an anguished monologue that didn't feel entirely credible (which was not the singer's fault).
The whole thing was, though, a generally intense and pleasurable musical experience in the hands of UrbanArias founder and conductor Robert Wood. The score, now steeped in Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier," an opera Wright and Cheney saw on a trip to Berlin, offers music more spare and angular, a step removed from Strauss's lushness. Indeed, the score may be something of a musical response to the jewel-like tones and intricate patterns in Wright's signature windows and textiles (four panels of which form the bulk of director Grant Preisser's set), which also put their own spin on traditional European elegance. The resulting opera looks back, not forward — and thus, while telling Wright's story, doesn't achieve Wright's pathbreaking status. It remains, however, very effective opera.
"Shining Brow" continues through Oct. 21 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.