(Photo : Photo by Richard Termine)
While his masterpiece "Porgy and Bess" is a modern-day favorite, George Gershwin's first opera "Blue Monday" rarely gets a chance on any stage around the world. The main reason is because the work, approximately 25 to 30 minutes in length, is too short to justify performance on its own. However, the On Site Opera Company overlooked this inconvenience and gave a terrific representation of this fine work for three evenings at the Cotton Club in New York City. This reporter attended the second performance on June 19.
The opera takes place in a New York club owned by Mike (Bass-Baritone Clayton Mathews). In the vein of Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" the work begins with Mike addressing the audience and hinting at the story about to unravel. The work revolves around Vi (soprano Alyson Cambridge), a jealous woman who is in love with a gambler named Mike (tenor Chase Taylor). Aside from being Joe's lover, Vi is also an object of desire for Tom (Lawrence Craig), the lead singer in the club. After being rejected by Vi, Tom does his best Iago/Tonio impersonation and plants the seeds of doubt in Vi in hopes of winning her from Joe and destroying him in the process. While Gershwin fills his ravishing score with breathless melody and lyricism, the work's brisk pace makes the viewer wish for a bit more time to develop the relationship between the two lovers to fully appreciate the power of the climax.
The staging of the opera in the Cotton Club managed to create a strong sense of immersion and intimacy for the viewer and the minimal space of the "stage" added to the claustrophobic feel of the work. On Site Opera artistic director and co-founder Eric Einhorn and Choreographer George Faison also implemented a number of dances throughout orchestral interludes to give the action a relentless pace.
Musically, the crammed space was a mixed bag. The string quartet, brass and winds reverberated through the hall brilliantly under the guidance of the attentive conductor Gregory Hopkins; the placement clearly benefitted their ability to project to the audience. However, not all of the singers benefitted from the orchestra's omnipresence and some were overpowered in the early going.
Mathews was one such singer that seemed to lack volume at the start of the performance, but his voice seemed to gain assurance and power as the evening wore on. His voice had a very rugged texture that seemed to suggest Mike as an older gentleman. As his employee Sam, Bass Alvin Crawford provided a suitable counterpoint. His voice rang brilliantly throughout his "Blue Monday Blues." As the antagonist Craig gave the most dominant performance. He delivered his brief phrases with an aggressive attack that made him menacing; his voice projected with clarity and confidence throughout the club.
In the role of Vi, Cambridge brought a tremendous amount of nuance and intensity. Utilizing the intimacy of the locale to her advantage, Cambridge relied more on the expression of her eyes rather than more pronounced gestures that would be necessary in a larger hall. The power of her voice was initially overwhelming as it was clear that her volume was simply too big for the small hall. However, she managed to add sweetness and delicacy during her moving monologue "Has anyone seen my Joe?"
Taylor possessed impeccable stage presence and moved about with suavity and elegance that made Joe a relatable character. His voice matched the heft and vibrancy of Cambridge and Craig, but in the small space, his wide vibrato created a lack of stability in the pitch and timbre of his voice.
Overall, the intimacy of the club and the immediacy of the drama created a truly riveting spectacle that brought the rare work to vibrant life.