Kentucky Opera concludes its 2014-15 season with a new production of the 2014 opera “A Woman in Morocco,” by composer Daron Hagen and librettist Barbara Grecki, as part of its Composer Workshop series. In partnership with the University of Louisville, the workshop series showcases new operas in early stages of development, giving composers a chance to hone a work with a professional company before making the production available for wider distribution. This is the second time Hagen and Grecki have worked with Kentucky Opera: their three one-acts “New York Stories” were presented in 2010 through Kentucky Opera’s Studio Artist Program.
Hagen’s ninth opera is set in mid-Twentieth century Morocco at a hotel run by English ex-pat Teddy Forsythe (Joe Flaxman), which also acts as a front for human trafficking. The plot unfolds in a lobby and hotel room — confined, as it were, by the dark and disturbing subject matter. Any glimpse of the outside world comes through soundscapes of street noise, calls-to-prayer and a recurring BBC radio broadcast featuring a sultry jazz singer performing a song called “Love comes with a knife.”
Lizzy Holmes (Danielle Messina), a young journalist, arrives at the hotel and immediately becomes enamored by a charming staffer, named Ahmed (Joe Shadday). Their love affair unlocks a web of other love affairs and soon we’re engrossed in overlapping love triangles, while Lizzy unravels through drug addiction and the experience of seeing a kidnapping and murder. Hagen’s complex score works to underline these issues with leitmotifs, musical cues assigned to different characters, and music that never settles or rests. This isn’t a show with “numbers,” so when singers get soaring arias, they emerge naturally from this intricate texture. Hagen has a gift for writing sensually-rich tunes and uses this skill to release the music at important moments.
Danielle Messina was clear and confident portraying Lizzy’s metamorphosis from innocent Midwesterner to fragile addict. Her vocal prowess, self-assured and nimble, served her through this emotional descent. Ahmed, eloquently sung by Joe Shadday, uses his charisma to gently guide Lizzy through a kief-haze into squalor. With a captivating voice, Erin Bryan was strong as Lizzy’s friend, the curious Asilah.
A particularly captivating device occurs during Lizzy’s letter writing scenes to her sister Claire. The content of her letters and Lizzy’s inner monologue were delivered by the women of the cast, each character singing a thread in the harmonic fabric. These ensemble pieces, which included Natasha Foley (also portraying Asilah’s sister Habiba) and Krista Heckman, were vocally lush and homogeneous.
Sporting a consistently despicable swagger and wardrobe, Flaxman played a sleazy Teddy Forsythe. His frequent accomplice, the loathsome American businessman Harry Hopkins, was sung by Brent Smith whose brassy tone added a certain cockiness to his role. We were allowed brief moments of empathy towards the male characters, but those feelings were easily trumped by their unwavering filth. It’s through Harry we meet Claire, on a mission to find her sister Lizzy, portrayed by Melisa Bonetti, a singer with a mellow, warm voice.
Acting out everyday emotions and gestures (a kiss or embrace, a friendly exchange, etc) will always come easier than a struggle with another person, abusing someone, or driving a knife into someone’s heart. They are uncomfortable places to go, but essential to be convincing, and opera must be believable musically and dramatically. While Messina’s struggles were palpable, and Shadday seemed genuinely conflicted, others needed more emotional investment in their character’s despicable nature.
Words were sometimes difficult to understand in ensemble moments (like Lizzy’s letter-writing scenes) or anytime a singer turned away from the audience, even in the intimate Victor Jory Theatre. Given the complexity of the story, supertitles would have helped the audience. Conductor Roger Zahab confidently led a 10-piece ensemble (from behind a scrim) that held together despite several rough patches.
Grecki’s story is wholly original and equally familiar. While the behavior Harry, Teddy or Ahmed, or even Lizzy, is unpalatable, their essential struggle is universal: love. “A Woman in Morocco” doesn’t preach about the perils of human trafficking; Hagen and Grecki assume we’re all on the same page regarding its atrociousness. It doesn’t even suggest a solution to the problem. It does make clear that love can be ambiguous and even dangerous at its worst.
Kentucky Opera presents “A Woman in Morocco” for two more performances May 15th and 17th at the Victor Jory Theatre at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.