Tuesday, January 27, 2015
A world premiere chamber opera, The Lariat, opened last weekend at the tiny Thick House Theater on Potrero Hill. The music and libretto were both written by Lisa Scola Prosek, a local Princeton-trained composer who has already composed over a half dozen operas. The story about the Monterey Bay Essalen tribe of Native Americans interacting with 1790s missionaries is taken from a 1920s novella by Jaime De Angulo, the fascinating Berkeley linguist, shamanistic explorer, ethnomusical transcriber, and guru to poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.
The name that drew me to the production was bass/baritone Philip Skinner above, who is one of the most reliably talented opera performers around, playing the tormented Father Luis who falls under the spell of both an Essalen woman and Native American shamanism.
There were lots of characters, including singing animals above (Maria Mikheyenko and Alexis Lane Jensen with The Shaman Hualala sung by Clifton Romig). There was also lots of narrative compressed into a series of short, disjointed scenes over 75 minutes, but I grew to appreciate the lack of paint-by-numbers narrative, as if the entire audience was familiar with De Aguelo's obscure novella.
What was a surprising knockout was Prosek's music, which was delicate, dramatic, and simple without being dull, a rare achievement. Her orchestration of Northern Californian Native American music written down by De Angulo contrasting with Latin plainchant mixed with Spanish jotas was fascinating and the varying musics were given equal weight.
The sound of the four-piece orchestra under conductor Bruce Olstad was extraordinary, with Joel Davel on percussion, Diane Grubbe on flutes, the great Leighton Fong on cello, and the composer herself playing a muted piano part. It sounded a bit like Lou Harrison at his best, joyful music reduced to its essence.
The other standouts in the cast were Joe Myers/Raymond as a punitive friar who only cared about food. In a part that could have been a cartoon villain, Joe played him as an amusing monster of practicality. Crystal Philippi as Ishka, the Esselen Carmen of the opera, had a beautiful voice and presence, making the madness and joy any number of male characters go through believable. Also worthy of note is the half-Spanish, half-Essalen cowboy Ruiz played by Mark Hernandez, who exits with a bear.
There are two more performances this weekend, and you can buy tickets by clicking here. Besides its intrinsic merits, the performances are also worthy of support for extra-musical reasons, involving a tormented production history with a shady producer which I will be detailing in a future post. The blurry people in the above photo are the composer Lisa Scola Prosek and the conductor Bruce Olstad.