Opera companies need to sponsor new works if the genre is to have a future. UrbanArias, a small but feisty company based at the embattled Artisphere in Rosslyn, has helped fill that niche by mounting a few new or recent operas each season since 2010. Its latest offering, “Blue Viola,” by music theater composer Peter Hilliard, makes for a moderately interesting evening at the theater. Less certain is whether audience members looking for opera, and all that word entails, would find what they seek in it.
The clever libretto by Matt Boresi adapts the true story of an 18th-century viola left on a sidewalk by the principal violist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Baritone Jorell Williams showed promise as Vernon, the junk dealer who takes the precious instrument home, with a smooth tone in the slow aria “Time Is a Monster” in the second scene. Jazz singer Alicia Olatuja was slightly outclassed by the high-range writing for Arnita, the girlfriend who stabs Vernon and takes the viola. Baritone Keith Phares’s tone was on the nasally side as Mike, Arnita’s boss, who tries to help Arnita sell the viola to an instrument dealer, sung by music theater tenor Ben Lurye, whose tone was plagued by a tremulous vibrato.
Hilliard’s score strikes much the same tone, which is appealing on the surface but is ultimately trite, as was his earlier work “The Filthy Habit,” a musical comedy, also with a book by Boresi, mounted in 2012 by UrbanArias. Members of the accomplished ensemble Inscape Chamber Orchestra, under conductor and UrbanArias founder Robert Wood, brought the jazzy turns of the score credibly to life, especially Megan Yanik, whose viola solos served as scene transitions and gave a reedy voice to the “bluesy” victim of the crime.
Downey is a freelance writer.