Performing Arts

Fort Worth Opera streams a new Zoom production. But the main messages fall flat

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Traditional operas are especially challenging to produce these days, so companies are exploring new ways to reach audiences. As part of its increased focus on online offerings, the Fort Worth Opera premiered the virtual chamber opera Bernadette’s Cozy Book Nook Thursday night.

Composed by FWO’s artistic director Joe Illick, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, the 40-minute, one-act opera calls for five voices, accompanied by piano and string quartet. Assembled digitally from different locations, the singers appear in their own Brady Bunch squares, while the instrumentalists are off-screen.

Bernadette presides over a book club with four retirees. Larry used to be a doctor for a friend of hers, Emmett worked with her late husband in hedge funds, and Marcia was her hairdresser.

One of the club’s rules is “no talk of politics.” This is doomed to fail when the group selects Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. (Did anyone Google this book beforehand to see if it’s political?)

To complicate matters, it’s the group’s first meeting on Zoom, and Bernadette’s Yale-educated niece, Eleanor, shows up. The conversation begins amiably enough, but things eventually, and predictably, dissolve into chaos.

Although the opera is set in April 2020, when coronavirus cases were soaring, the characters are largely unaffected by the pandemic. Admittedly, Eleanor’s post-graduation plans have changed — she had to move back home and stay in her childhood bedroom. Marcia’s son also lost his job, so he and his family are living with her and her husband.

Otherwise, the pandemic only presents inconveniences. Bernadette wants a haircut. Emmett and his partner Jörg can’t take a scheduled trip to Tuscany. And now, the group has to meet online, instead of in person. With the possible exception of Marcia, the former hairdresser, almost all of them also seem financially secure.

Still, they offer audiences two main messages: “This too shall pass,” first sung by Bernadette in the opening, and “Try to find beauty in anything,” which comes near the end. Coming from characters detached from the epidemic’s worst aspect, these trite messages carry little weight.

Mainly tonal and melodic, Illick’s score pulls from several stylistic influences. When Emmett sings about cooking Italian food, his comic aria is flavored by Rossini and Verdi. Violins playing up high recall poignant moments in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Other passages sound like Broadway musicals.

The cast is studded with stars. Brenda Harris’ Bernadette is a sweet-voiced soprano, though her vibrato is often too wide. But she exudes an imposing presence when restoring order to the group’s meeting. Mezzo Joyce Castle as Marcia has a slenderer voice than the others, but effectively conveys the frazzled state of her character. Soprano Gabrielle Gilliam is the ardent and spunky Eleanor. Donnie Ray Albert as Larry possesses a resonant, rich-toned bass, while tenor William Burden’s Emmett displays charm and plenty of power.

Conducted by Andrew Whitfield, the Harlem String Quartet and pianist Aldo López-Gavilán provide a fine accompaniment to the singers. But the recording makes the piano sound tinny, and you can’t hear the instrumentalists well if you’re not wearing headphones.

Streaming online until Jan. 24. $25.

Find more performing arts stories from The Dallas Morning News here.

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