Friday, June 27, 2014
Last weekend Opera Parallele presented its second and final opera of its 2014 season, Anya17, a recent work by the British composer Adam Gorb and librettist Ben Kaye. The subject was sex trafficking, which seems to have replaced the Sudan as the Western world's social cause of the moment. The story treatment was unrelentingly grim, in an upsetting mixture of what felt like English sexual sadism layered over an account of Eastern European brutality towards women. One blog, whose author John Marcher confesses to enjoying torture porn horror films, called it "vile and disgusting," while Joshua Kosman at the San Francisco Chronicle panned the opera while mentioning that "the degradation and brutality on display are almost unbearable."
In truth, it wasn't all that rough, and I actually find both Wozzeck and Madama Butterfly (with its candy-coated sex trafficking) more disturbing. Part of the problem with Anya17 is that the women, especially Mila above who was performed by the first-rate Shawnette Sulker, are treated as pure victims without an ounce of personal agency, which ended up feeling oddly sexist. My experience of Eastern European women is that they are some of the toughest characters on the planet, but there was never a hint of that in the opera's libretto, except when the magnificent Catherine Cook as Natalia was playing a pimping procuress. I kept hoping the crazy Ukranian clone Helena from the deliriously enjoyable BBC America TV series Orphan Black would arrive and cut all the bad guys' throats before burning the whorehouse down. Instead, we have Gabriel, a "john with a heart of gold" (Kosman's apt description) who confronts the evil sex trafficker Viktor near the end, and as the program puts it, "They fight and Gabriel, against all odds, manages to kill Viktor."
Whatever the problems with the 80-minute, one-act opera's conception, the production by director Brian Staufenbiel above and his usual crew of collaborators was stunningly good. It was the best, most theatrical use of the Marine Memorial Theatre's small stage that I have witnessed, a melange of scrims, video projections, very good singers, a pair of dancers/supernumearies who could have been silly but were not, and an amazingly accomplished onstage chamber orchestra.
The music by Gorb (above right) was surprisingly good too. He has written a lot of pieces for woodwind ensembles and you could tell, because each instrument made its mark and the piece was endlessly inventive. I wasn't as impressed by his vocal writing, but the performances by everyone in the cast were committed and superb, including Anna Noggle in the title role above left.
It's hard for me to be objective about the Opera Parallele troupe because I've appeared in a number of their shows as a supernumerary, and my admiration for conductor and artistic director Nicole Paiement above only grows with each production. She is simply one of the best opera conductors in the world right now, and was recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Opera. I hope the San Francisco Opera (or SF Symphony) hire her to lead something before she's stolen away altogether because her musicianship is a local treasure.