Bard opera puts language of birds to musical mastery

By: Kitty Montgomery, Reviewer, Kingston Daily Freeman

Doug Fitch, director and stage designer for David Bruce's opera, "A Bird in Your Ear," composed for singers in Dawn Upshaw's Graduate Program in Vocal Arts in the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and premiere at Sosnoff Theater in the Fisher Center, March 21, believes music and dance are the song and flight of our own species, our attempt at direct communication with the gods.

Let's give this view Bruce shares in the opera's program notes a Jungian - Joseph Campbell spin, and suggest the gods we seek communication with, via performing arts, are the highest projection of man's collective unconscious.

Hence, Fitch, Bruce and his librettist Alasdair Middleton, with a cast of principals, the Bard College Chamber Singers and the Bard Conservatory Orchestra conducted by James Bagwell, collaborate to wake our higher animal through the wondrous musical journey of Ivan, a boy with a wish disturbed by the lament of his father's caged nightingale, to understand the language of the birds. In addition to his place in Russian folklore, the heroic "face" of this youth of innocence, curiosity and compassion appears in mythic tales around the globe, notably, the biblical saga of Joseph.

Through a simplistic, ritual telling of the story, in composer Bruce's musical language that carries conversantly, with an orchestral score shading content of the drama, men and birds sing their hopes and fears; a trio of peasant women underlines moral points, and the chorus expands drama, sometimes as forest of birds, or a bickering flock of ravens; sometimes singing as sailors or village folk.

Three dimensional cinematic projections by Edouard Getaz, collaborating in designs by Fitch, which suspend behind tableau action to suggest a nightingale's gilded prison, a living forest, and a seething ocean beset by storms and pirates, introduce a magic realism that extends the unfolding tale to the dimension of dreams. Mary K. Grusak's vivid costume designs are vielle Russe, circa 18 something.

As the passion plays out, Ivan, savior of unprotected nestlings, encountered in a sudden deluge. He is granted his wish, by their grateful mother, to understand the language of the birds.

Following epiphany, he is privy to future events unknown to other mortals, including the foretelling of his father's ruin, the advent of tempests and pirates at seas, and the means of quieting a raven flock's quarrel, which wins him a princess and a kingdom. In conclusion, the gentle son will share his wealth with the envious, vengeful father, who set him adrift at sea.

The archetypal characters of Ivan - tenor Sung Eun Lee - and the Merchant - baritone Yohan Yi - are animated by the singers' artless art in a culminating scene of reconciliation that's touching as the finale of any Verdi-verismo opera. It smokes every eye in the house. Yi, who also morphs into the Captain and the King, is a consummate singing actor of resonant depths unsounded when he painted through Jacques Ibert's Quatre Chansons de Don Quichotte with a luminous, transparent instrument in a recent performance with the American Symphony Orchestra.

Freed at last from her toppled cage, soprano Chanel Wood's nightingale carols her bliss, and Yulia Van Doren's Bird of Golden Plumage warbles of compassion and truth. Appropriately shrill, when best by ravens, soprano Rie Miyake's Princess is otherwise dulcet.

The production featured the celestially lucid sopranos of Maghan Stewart and Solange Merdinian as the Saints Teresa, Patrick Cook's clarion tenor in the roles of Saints Chavez and Steven, baritone Yang Yang as Saint Ignatius, and Rachel Schutz, whose portrait of St. Settlement revealed a comic streak lurking in this astounding lyric coloratura, who dazzled a Bard audience with a veritable pipe of the Strauss Brentano Leider at Conservatory orchestra concert in February.

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