This Weekend’s Performances of Work are the First Ever
By George Parous
Kamratōn, the ensemble which challenges the boundaries of music performance, expands the contemporary chamber music repertoire, and celebrates the role of women as leaders in the arts, presented a rather gothic new chamber opera, The Strange Child, this past Friday and Saturday evenings, June 17 and 18, at the Alloy Studios. With music by Julia Werntz and a libretto by Kim Adrian, the work is based on one of the decidedly gothic/romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories, Das fremde Kind. Hoffmann’s use of fantasy, ranging from fanciful fairy tales to highly suggestive stories of the macabre and supernatural, has inspired several composers. Richard Wagner is said to have drawn on stories from Die Serapionsbrüder (the collection which includes Das fremde Kind) for his Die Meistersinger, as did Paul Hindemith in Cardillac and Jacques Offenbach in The Tales of Hoffmann, in which Hoffmann himself is the central figure. The ballet Coppélia, by Léo Delibes, is also based on a Hoffmann story, as is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite, The Nutcracker.
Adrian’s libretto, for the most part easily understood through the clear diction of the singers engaged for the performances, sticks fairly close to Hoffmann’s weird, not so “happily ever after” story, with the action spread over four acts of multiple scenes. Werntz’s music is somewhat heavy and chaotic – highly complex – and, as was mentioned in the warm-up speech before Friday night’s performance – a full description of it would amount to a music theory class lecture. The taxing score didn’t seem to daunt the small chamber orchestra. Cecilia Caughman (‘cello), Emily Cook (clarinets), Sarah Steranka (flutes) and Jennifer Sternick (violin/viola), conducted by Daniel Nesta Curtis, played the trying score seamlessly, and with apparent ease and dexterity. They fully deserved the applause they received at the end of the performance.
The plot, set in a 19th century German hamlet, at the secluded home of Sir and Lady von Brakel, and in the nearby woods, as lifted shamelessly from the program: Count Cyprianus and his family arrive in the small village of Brakelheim to visit his humble cousin, Sir Thaddeus von Brakel, and his family. The two families have a tea party and discuss the education of children. Class tensions are high. Christlieb and Felix von Brakel are given gifts by their cousins. Christlieb and Felix open their gifts—a doll and a toy huntsman. With excitement, they take their new toys into the woods to play, but soon grow frustrated with the inert playthings, and toss them in a pond. A letter arrives from Count Cyprianus advising Sir Thaddeus to raise taxes on the villagers. The children meet their new tutor, Master Inkblot (who also has been sent by the Count). In the woods, the children meet the Strange Child, who teaches them how to play without manmade toys. Sir Thaddeus and his wife, Lady von Brakel, question their children about their encounter with the Strange Child.
The Strange Child tells the story of their mother, the Fairy Queen, and her feud with Pepasilio, King of the Gnomes—who is part fly. During a lesson, Master Inkblot loses his patience with Christlieb and Felix and threatens violence. Sir Thaddeus intervenes, insisting Inkblot take the children for a walk in the woods to get fresh air. Villagers arrive to pay Sir Thaddeus their new taxes (as suggested by Count Cyprianus). Sir Thaddeus has a change of heart and sends them away without their paying. The children, in the woods with Inkblot, grow frightened of their tutor, who calls the discarded toys back to life. The toys chase the children out of the woods. The children run home to Sir Thaddeus and Lady von Brakel. Inkblot, transformed into a gigantic fly, comes bumbling after, and everyone realizes that he and Pepasilio are one and the same. After a great struggle, Sir Thaddeus chases Inkblot away. A new letter arrives from Count Cyprianus, in which he evicts the von Brakel family because of a debt they owe him. Sir Thaddeus dies as a result of Inkblot’s terrible magic. Lady von Brakel, Christlieb, and Felix bid farewell to their beloved village and villagers. The Strange Child’s presence is felt by all as the small family departs.
The end – and not such a happy ending, as mentioned before. The four acts are of reasonable length, with the brevity of some of the many scenes occasionally being a bit of a distraction. The music demands singers capable of handling difficult music full of tongue twisting rhythms, numberless forte passages and other flights, and it was fortunate that the cast was full of just such artists. Kamratōn’s own Anna Elder sang the title role with a ringing soprano of lovely quality. The four members of the Quince Ensemble, Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano), were on hand for the respective roles of Felix von Brakel, Lady von Brakel, The Stork and Christlieb von Brakel. All four gave ample evidence of why they were chosen to be parts of the premiere. Pearse and Henneman Shaw, as the Von Brakel children, did quite a lot of singing, but their fine voices stayed clear and fresh till the very end.
Robert Frankenberry, as Thaddeus von Brakel, sang his way through a challenging role quite skillfully, and with the musical intelligence that can always be expected of him. He might very well have carried off the vocal honors of the evening, quite frankly, and acted the part with his consistent level of excellence. Eugene Perry, in the roles of Count Cyprianus, Master Inkblot and the fly-like Pepser (with brightly lit wings for a flashing moment) had much action and singing to do as well, and was another highlight of the very talented ensemble. Franklin Mosley and Paul Yeater stood out in the brief parts of Villagers – too briefly, since the first has a charming voice and stage presence, and the latter proved he can sing heavier stuff than Gilbert & Sullivan. Laurie Strode (Countess Cyprianus), Alexandria Zallo (Hermann/The Huntsman), Anneke Harger (Adelgunde Cyprianus/The Doll), Isabelle Ramey (Dancer/Sultan) and Jo-Chen Chang rounded out the top-notch ensemble.
Laurie Strode, Anneke Harger, Alexandria Zallo, Eugene Perry, Franklin Mosley, Paul Yeater
For a first hearing, probably the most I can say about the work is that I regret not being able to sit back and relax at a second hearing.
Visit Kamratōn for more information about the ensemble and its mission.
Creative and Technical Team for The Strange Child –
Julia Werntz, Composer; Kim Adrian, Librettist; Shana Simmons, Director/Choreographer; Daniel Nesta Curtis, Music Director
Sam Crowe, Sound Engineer; Anna Elder, Costumes; Aaron Henderson, Video Design and Projection; Lindsay Lehman, Supertitles; Shura Skaya, Artwork; Madeleine Steineck, Lighting Design; Jason Via, Stage Manager; Matt Washil, Production Technician