Two Saturdays ago, I saw the world premiere production of a new chamber opera, Today It Rains, and it's been surprisingly difficult to write about. The production by Brian Staufenbiel at Opera Parallele, the music by Laura Kaminsky, the conducting by Nicole Paiement of a brilliant, 11-piece chamber orchestra, and the singing by a cast of eight were all impressive. The energy, time and care of Opera Parallele's first commissioned work were everywhere apparent, which is why it's sad to report that I didn't care for the opera. I'm going to blame Mark Campbell, who not only shares the libretto with Kimberly Reed but has an odd credit, "Original premise by". (All of the gorgeous production photos are by Steve DiBartolomeo.)
The one-act, 80-minute opera focuses on a train trip the painter Georgia O'Keefe made while leaving her husband, the influential New York photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, for a life in New Mexico. Baritone Daniel Belcher played Alfred in a series of flashbacks, and though Stieglitz did sport a walrus moustache and wire-frame glasses, the singer looked more like a sad, glum John Bolton than an artistic entrepreneur. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert played Georgia O'Keefe, and though I liked her voice much better than Joshua Kosman, she looked and sounded miscast, soft and langorous where O'Keefe always projected the strength of a Texas sharecropper woman straight out of a Dorothea Lange photograph.
The supporting cast was superb, musically and theatrically. Marnie Breckinridge as Rebecca Strand, a fellow painter married to photographer Paul Strand, just about stole the show with her bright soprano, musical intelligence, and theatrical savvy. She deserves a bigger career.
My favorite performers were the four-person ensemble of Elliott Paige, Kindra Scharich, Maya Kherani, and Gabriel Presser. They were set movers, supernumeraries, and a gorgeous vocal ensemble. In fact, they were given the most interesting music by Kaminsky throughout, and I started wishing it was their story or Rebecca Strand's story.
The story instead was about a generic woman artist striking out on her own, tentatively, and her difficult journey encapsulated in one train ride. This might have worked if it had stayed on the train exclusively while informing us that Stiegletz, O'Keefe and the Strands were a Bohemian 1920s foursome who had all had affairs with each other at one time or another. In fact, Georgia O'Keefe and Rebecca Strand became lovers for the next six years on their New Mexico sojourns, but we never have a hint of this and instead linger in lugubrious breakup scenes between Stieglitz and O'Keefe.
Why this opera may last is because the music by Kaminsky is so very interesting. Her aria writing, particularly for O'Keefe, is a bit meandering and dull for my taste, but the vocal writing for the ensemble and subsidiary characters was delightful. And her chamber orchestra was gorgeous and intricate. I had the perverse wish to not see the staging in front of me and just focus on the orchestra instead. Joe Cadigan at SF Classical Voice seemed to be in accordance.
However, the staging throughout was smooth, complex and imaginative. Director and designer Brian Staufenbiel loves puzzle-piece sets and staging, and this was one of his most ingenious and successful efforts. The film projections by co-librettist Kimberly Reed of the countryside from a blurry train ride were unobtrusive and arty, but they eventually became too insistent, drawing the focus away from the performers. The embarrassingly conceived character of porter Aubrey Wells, who gives our conflicted heroine a piece of black folk wisdom while playing jazz, was performed by tenor Nathan Granner with such a beautiful voice and theatrical flair that he made the penultimate Driving Miss Georgia scene entertaining.