Friday, April 29, 2016

An absorbing, poignant and entertainingly piquant JFK at Fort Worth Opera

Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth as the Kennedys with Ensemble, Part 2
In what's surely the year's most anticipated opera world premiere, Fort Worth Opera (in a co-commission with Opéra Montréal and American Lyric Theatre) have carved a piece of operatic history with JFK, an indelibly absorbing, poignant and at times entertainingly piquant work.

Many, and I'd say most senior opera-goers, would remember that day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on 23rd November 1963. I wasn't yet born but the grainy film footage of President Kennedy's last moments alongside his wife Jackie in an open-top Cadillac, winds one right into the fatal moment. On that sunny afternoon, a man's dream to put man on the moon ended in a tragedy and a media frenzy that sent shock waves around the globe.

An insoluble presence of looming death cuts through JFK but it's also about life, of dealing with ourselves, our relationships. Its strength is in its portrayal of familiar and influential figures of American history that just as easily vape into domestic unknowns we are coerced into relating to. Politics lies at the periphery.

Royce Varek's libretto is woven with poetic universal depth and coloured with composer David T. Little's absorbing music throughout the opera's two parts and its 31 "moments". What Little and Varek (who collaborated on the successful chamber opera Dog Days), have done is master a work focusing on the last evening and final hours when the Kennedy's spent the night in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel in a creatively fresh take consisting of time-alternating moments.

Daniela Mack and Matthew Worth
For this, familiarity with the the program notes will enormously help in understanding Little and Vavrek's mix of dreams, apparitions and mythological guides. Two prominent figures traverse the work in triplicate roles. The Greek mythological figures Clotho and Lachesis are the Fates who spin and measure life. Both figures transmute as a hotel maid and Kennedy's Secret Service agent and also as Henry Rothbone (Sean Panikkar), President Lincoln's mentally disturbed assassin and his wife Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne). Once understood, these multi-layers can be seen to provide dramatic integrity without strangling the actual "real moments".

Director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger gives JFK hugely touching life with punchy, insightful design and potent directorial handling. As the curtain rises, "TEXAS" spans the stage in large green neon letters in a font referencing the hotel sign. Four neatly furnished rooms in 60s conservative aesthetic comprise the Kennedy hotel suite that rotates on a raised platform - two bedrooms, an ensuite bathroom and sitting room. Other dynamic scenic changes occur including a sensuous moonscape scene and a banquet setting for Jack's address to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. A perceived accuracy in the details of Mattie Ullrich's contemporary 60s costumes create an unmistakable portrait of the Kennedys and the time.

Our first encounter with the first couple is unsettlingly voyeuristic as we look in as witnesses to a personal side of public life. Jack is lying in a bathtub while Jackie is in the adjacent bedroom. Looking out from the hotel room window, the audience is drawn into Jackie's portrait of introspection. Her opening aria, “Midnight Is the Loneliest Hour" depicts the pitiable melancholy that pervades her music and achingly gives the opera its emotional heart. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack immortalises her in a profoundly sensitive and poised performance with her lusciously dark and powerful mezzo-soprano. In Part One's final stages, Mack sings the near tear-jerker, "You Shiver". Limp on the floor beside the bed on which her husband is flaked out, she heart-wrenchingly sings with a devastatingly penetrating vibrato of the masks they wear and of her love for him despite his infidelities.

Katharine Goeldner, Daniela Mack and Talise Carrico
Then in Part Two's "I Have A Rendezvous", searching for an answer as to whether her husband will love her for the rest of his life as she is dresses for the morning's presidential speech, Mack sings in a duet facing her own older self as Jackie Onassis, who mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner portrays with richly compelling class.

Every bit looking the presidential part as Jack, baritone Matthew Worth brings appropriate firm, resonant and charismatic vocal style if at times a little lacking authoritative projection. Jack is a man our equal, as much susceptible to self-doubt, vulnerability and subconscious pain as any of us. While Jack lazes in the bathtub, Jackie enters to check on him and assists in relieving his chronic back pain with an injection of morphine. She, too, takes a hit. This introductory scene virtually reduces them to lost dependant drug users after which they plunge into a series of zany dreams that trace episodes of their life.

Firstly, Jack's institutionalised sister Rosemary (Cree Carrico), twirls out from the shower dressed for a dance she demands he take her to. Then, Rosemary takes him to the moon  where his first flirtatious meeting with Jackie is played out. An encounter with Russian premier Nikita Krushchev (Casey Finnigan) follows in a battle of superpower oneupmanship and finally, back in the bathroom, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (Daniel Okulitch) and his cronies invade his bath time with loads of lewdness as Texan cowboys.

Daniel Okulitch and his cronies
Talise Trevigne and Sean Panikkar are a vocally enigmatic and gloriously haunting force as Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone and as Rosemary, Cree Carrico agitatedly twirls and darts with as much amusing vocal shrill as she does about the bathroom. The deeply smokey-voiced Daniel Okulitch puts in grand performance as the lascivious and mocking LBJ, Casey Finnigan is a threatening pushy heavyweight as Krushchev and Brian Wallin is the shinily-voiced, clean-cut and excitable morning reporter.

The well-chosen cast is supported with a splendid strata of sound from the large chorus and the Texan Boys Choir but their presence never overwhelms the stage.

Right from the beginning, as the brief orchestral introduction reveals a mysterious serenity that swells to unnerving gloom, the music spins its effect. As the work unfolds, Little employs engaging diversity in style and orchestration, often giving the solo instrument sympathetic control. On opening night, the score was rendered with a refined ease by conductor Steven Osgood and the large Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

When the opera is presented by Opéra Montréal I want to be there again and, if not, I have no doubt JFK has the ability to reach globally, just as the shock of the president's assassination did.

Production Photographs: Marty Sohl (top) and Karen Almond 

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most astonishing venues that I've attended for my numerous experiences. This place is spot on with the decorations. The overall experience from the party venues was amazing! Had a fun and comfortable time here.