New Contemporary Opera at Thick House

Love takes a spill

Friday night saw the premiere of two works of opera with video backdrops at Thick House, San Francisco’s avant garde Potrero Hill theater. Clarinetist and composer Peter Josheff wrote “Francesca’s Complaint” to a libretto by Bay Area poet Jaime Robles.

This fully-staged aria from Inferno, their opera-in-progress, featured soprano Eliza O’Malley accompanied by pianist Alexis Aldrich. Combining expressive movement with powerful singing, O’Malley plays Francesca da Rimini, trapped in Dante’s Hell for loving unwisely.

Careful staging, disturbing videographic sets, and excellent lighting set the tone for this musical descent into Hell. O’Malley wears a torn and burned flowery outfit in red and purple hues reminiscent of the passions she could not control during life. Her arms are dried palm fronds, a mating of dead soul and tree, and she strains against knotted rubbery ropes that are tied to her and rise out of the set.

Piano opened with a soft E major motif made wistful by a minor third. The vocal line, full of jarring augmented 4ths, or tri-tones, maintained a disturbing contrast. The intricate piano maintained a loosely Balinese scale, giving a bright and distracted air to the arpeggios, a disconnect that underscored the vocal rawness.

O’Malley sang with great intensity, both in the pianissimo anguish of “I hunger,” while lying on her back, and in full throat as she poured gasoline around herself. Director Jacob Kalousek’s video backdrop derived images from the text: shredded ribbons of paper shift in the wind as O’Malley sings, “Stories have unraveled me:/ false-hearted words now/ Tangle across my tongue.”

Images of a jackhammer breaking asphalt punctuated her repeated “stutter…” Negative images of fountaining water reverse our knowledge of liquid and solid, and extreme close-ups of a submerging body, in negative, suggest a soul swallowed by earth.


And now for something completely different

In a rather different vein, Lisa Scola Prosek’s comedy, Belfagór, is also set in Hell. Based on Machiavelli’s novella of a devil who returns to Earth and marries for love, it is a humorous view of the demands of marriage and money. Ultimately, his insatiable wife and creditors hound poor Belfagór back to his peaceful Hell. Prosek has written oratorios and operas in English and Italian, including Leonardo’s Notebooks, which debuted here last year.

Aurelio Viscarra sings the tenor part of the hapless devil, his good nature and helpless manner a perfect fit as the Comedia del Arte foil. Maria Mikheyenko, a soprano with a plush Russian voice, performs as both Lucifer and the pouting wife who begins to resemble her, Onesta. Eliza O’Malley appears in this also, as a shade and relative of Onesta, as does alto Gar Wei Lee. Clifton Romig’s substantial bass fills out the cast and anchors the excellent choral arrangements.

A bass clarinet overture, played by Rachel Condry, opened the opera. She brought a richness to the simple major progressions. Cello, viola, bass and piano joined her, their clean orchestration and minimal themes a setting for the lusher vocal lines. One duet between Mikheyenko and Viscarra was particularly delightful, employing sixths for an ornate and classical sound.

Thick House showcases diverse events, ranging from staged readings and comedy sketches, this week, to 4:48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane’s play on bipolar disorder, opening June 14. Their schedule is available on the web, at www.thickhouse.org.

—Adam Broner
Originally published by the Piedmont Post