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Berkeley's West Edge Opera opens “Caliban Dreams”
2011-07-30
 

 

John Duykers singing Caliban

If you go to Berkeley’s West Edge Opera production of Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody’s “Caliban Dreams” expecting a variation on “The Tempest,” then you’ll be disappointed. There is none of Shakespeare’s lush language striking to the essence of life’s dark sorrow over death, no intricately woven plot, no careful modulations between the grand and the lowly.

If you are open, however, to the opera’s premises, you will enjoy an evening laced with charm and sly wit, both verbal and musical. The librettist and composer have built their opera out of the raucous humor of Shakespeare's low-comedy characters and the magical ambiguousness of the fantastic—two vital aspects of Shakespeare’s play that the opera’s artistic team have understood and managed, delightfully, to transform into a contemporary work. A work that is, finally, whimsical and inventive.

Moody’s tongue-in-cheek language is epitomized by her use of “oyster” as an end-rhyme (“cloister” finishes the couplet), and Suprynowicz not only takes up her challenge but matches it, moving gracefully through a compendium of musical styles, all of which he handles with a light, almost delicate, touch, in keeping with the mysteries of preternatural creatures that inhabit the Tempest’s island.

Like so many contemporary operas, “Caliban Dreams” is less a plot-driven story than a study of characters—in this case, those of Caliban and Ariel. Caliban is sung by John Duykers, who seems to revel in the role, infusing the malevolently marshy moon-calf with an innocence and almost boyish lustiness. His character also partakes of the gentler actions of the sprite Ariel, sung by soprano Laura Bohn, whose voice has a lovely quality in the upper register, especially in softer dynamics. And Ariel in turn takes on some of the bawdier aspects of the lecherous Caliban. Her parody of Miranda, “I Want to Be Known,” smacks of the busty (and in this instance, explosive!) self-assertions of “Gypsy” and other musical comedy vixens. Both singers radiated ease and enjoyment.

 Laura Bohn sings Ariel          

What's the story?

The narrative pursues Caliban’s plot to murder Prospero and take over control of the island. In aid of his fantasy are three new characters, the elemental sprites Fury Vesta (Aimée Puentes), Fury Pedestra (Alexis Jensen), and Fury Dolores (Scott Graf), sung with delicious comic verve. Like their sister Ariel, these furies were imprisoned in a tree by Caliban’s witch-mother, Sycorax, but unlike Ariel they were not set free by Prospero. Caliban is their hope for escape: he need only kill Prospero and break the staff that holds magical sway over the island’s fantasticals. But the opera’s action is about the several disguises—also studies in character—that Ariel assumes in order to distract Caliban from his evil project. How much love enters into the motivations of both Ariel and Caliban becomes an enigma left for the audience to ponder.

The leads were vocally supported by the wonderful Ancora, the crème de la crème of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choirs, with choral master Robert Geary directing. The animal and bird sounds that opened the opera and decorated its silences were especially fetching.

Jonathan Kuhner expertly conducted the West Edge Opera band as they navigated their way through the exotic percussion-decorated score, and Melissa Weaver's direction made full use of Duykers’ and Bohn’s dramatic talents. Mary Alice Fry, the artistic director of Footloose Presents, choreographed a quartet of young dancers as a light-footed addition to the chorus and singers.

Congratulations all around. It’s rare to experience fresh experiments in opera outside the great urban centers. The East Bay audience is privileged to have the opportunity.

 

 —Jaime Robles

 

West Edge Opera has two more East Bay performances of “Caliban Dreams” at the Performing Arts Theater on the campus of El Cerrito High School, 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito, on Friday, August 5 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, August 7 at 2:00 p.m. If you live in the North Bay area, there will be two performances at the Person Theater at Sonoma State, on August 12 (8 p.m.) and 14 (2 p.m.). For information and tickets, call 510-841-1903 or visit www.berkeleyopera.org.

Photos: John Duykers (above) as Caliban, and Laura Bohn as Ariel. Photos by Mark Altenberg.

 
     
   
 
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