Two SSU operas evoke varying emotions
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By Natalie Gray  February 15, 2013 12:00 am

Giggles, nervous contemplation and sorrow: those are some of the conflicting, twisting, yet somehow still delicious things experienced at the Sonoma State Opera.

Last Thursday night, audience members present at SSU’s Person Theater were taken on an emotional, nearly traumatic journey through the two one-act operas, the light-hearted, “The Deserted Island” and the tragic, “Riders to the Sea.”

This year at SSU, the theme is “Water Works,” a topic meant to get every department on campus talking about water and its importance. For its part this semester, the Department of Theater Arts and Dance has included the two one-act operas as their contribution.

Both plays take place on small islands where the surrounding ocean plays an ever present part in their stories. Accompanying each play was a live orchestra, directed by SSU professor Lynne Morrow. The similarity between the operas stops there, though.
The program handed out before the show is a dreary thing to look at, portraying a foreboding silhouette of a woman standing on a cliff over a black ocean. Below her, written in the sand, the rather ominous promise, “The sea takes everything.”

This rather gloomy first look into the operas did little to prepare audience members for what lay ahead just after the curtain rose.

The first opera was “The Deserted Island,” by Joseph Haydn, a comedy written back in the 18th century and originally intended for a royal audience. The set is complex in its simplicity – little more than a round, stump-like platform with a suspended giant leaf, cracked and yellow, like a parched riverbed. As a backdrop the audience sees an ever shifting projection of a water drop and thrown center stage, two women, with such deep frowns and miserable expressions, one would have thought they were looking again at that bleak program.  And that’s where things get funny.

Costanza (Kathryn Foster) has been abandoned by her husband Gernando (Ted Smith) and left alone with her younger sister Silvia (Kathleen Barnes) on a deserted island. The only thing Costanza has to live for is to painstakingly carve a plea to be avenged into a boulder with a knife. Once she has finished her message then – and only then – will she die. The plot only swims deeper into silliness as Gernando returns to the island with his friend, Enrico (Max Jennings).

It was a saving grace that each of the four actors have remarkable voices to distract from their opera’s story, which teetered uneasily between hilarity and obnoxious. From the moment Jennings and Smith step onto stage, you are able to guess the entire rest of the play: Gernando and Costanza will have a teary reunion, Silvia and Enrico will fall in love and they all will live happily ever after. The smiling, hugging and soaring notes at the end of the play left audience members grinning and totally unprepared for what was in store after the 20-minute intermission.

“Riders to the Sea,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams came like a sharp slap in the face. A gray, broken house made for the desolate setting for a story of a mother grieving her six sons, all drowned in the sea. We witness sisters clutching the clothes of a dead brother, chorus members draped in red and moaning a single note, like bloody ghosts and, of course, hauntingly beautiful voices that pierce right into your gut.

Leading lady Talia Trozzo plays Maurya, the elderly mother laden with grief over her lost children. With a fantastic voice and mournful lyrics (projected as supertitles for the audience above the stage), she strikes a feeling of grief and unease into you. The feeling is uncomfortable, itching, heartbreaking and, because of all that, wonderful.

Trozzo’s performance makes you momentarily forget you are even watching an opera and teleports you to the depressing shores of the Irish Island, standing hand-in-hand with the lamenting women, grieving your own losses in sons or brothers. When the play ended, the audience gave a warm, yet hesitant applause, as if afraid to intrude upon the singers in their time of mourning. The SSU one-act operas challenged the senses and perhaps everything you have ever known of the opera and presented audiences with a powerful range of emotions by means of beautiful music.

The operas are to run until Feb. 17, from Thursday-Saturday at 7: 30 p. m. in SSU Person Theater.

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