The chilly air inside the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon quickly dissipated with the bubbling musical heat emanating from the stage. UrbanArias, one of the region’s more exciting and reliably entertaining music groups producing new work, presented two one-act operas by composer Tom Cipullo, one of them a premiere.
Cipullo’s musical language, rooted in tonality with generous helpings of dissonance, is direct, succinct and original. His thorough understanding of the human voice allows him to create fully dimensional characters that are sympathetic and imminently believable. Both operas used a five-piece instrumental ensemble to support the singers, all expertly conducted by UrbanArias founder and general director Robert Wood. Alan Paul was the imaginative director.
“After Life,” situates friends and seminal 20th-century creative figures Gertrude Stein (sung by Catherine Cook with an unanticipated vulnerability) and Pablo Picasso (portrayed with machismo by Michael Mayes), in the hereafter, where they attempt to give some account of their morally controversial actions in France during World War II. This encounter is interrupted by a young orphan girl (sung with affecting simplicity by Ava Pine), who had once sold Stein a rose on a country road before being arrested and perishing in a German death camp. “Why did you survive and I did not?” she asks the two self-absorbed artists in this finely wrought exploration of the role of art in times of grave crisis.
For all the impressive singing and acting in “After Life,” the afternoon belonged to Melissa Wimbish, who was creating the role of Josephine Baker in this world premiere of “Josephine.” Beautifully prepared, vocally stunning, and theatrically riveting, Wimbish effortlessly held the audience in her hand throughout this one-woman show. Her nuanced portrayal of the immensely talented and complex Baker, whose career spanned sensational success in French cabaret and film to civil rights activism in the United States, brimmed with confident vitality.
UrbanArias’ “After Life” and “Josephine”repeated Friday and Saturday at the Atlas Performing Arts center. urbanarias.org. 202-399-7993.