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"A Pretty Bad Thing"

Crescent City: a Hyperopera at Atwater Crossing

Better than Delibes--in parts.

Like the name of YHWH, the holy, awe-inspiring words "New Orleans" and "Katrina" do not appear in the libretto of Anne LeBaron's "Crescent City," presently on view at Atwater Crossing, part of a Williamsburg-like redevelopment complex on Casitas Street in Atwater.  But there is no mistake: post-apocalyptic New Orleans is the subject and also the object of trembling devotion of this jarring, weaving, careening, and sometimes skidding assemblage of an opera that its own producers call "hyperopera" and that has generally been well received by an appreciative (and perchance alarmed) public to-date.

Anne LeBaron
We have been very lucky in the past five years in LA to see a few incarnations of what opera might be in the immediate future; coming to mind are Ah! Opera No-Opera produced at REDCAT in 2009, which I reviewed here, and The Wooster Group's fabulous space-time "revival" of La Didone at the same venue (review is here).  In this derby, Crescent City is perhaps ironically the most conventional, the one most recognizably operatic, with real sopranos, recognizable duets, a bona fide intermission, and even a stripe of supertitle projected onto screens that actually reside below the orchestra in the crow's nest (you can call them "mezzotitles" I suppose).  The opera is mostly in English--patois French snippets also sneak in, and they aren't translated.

The audience generally loves the top performers in the end, Gwendolyn Brown as the redemptive voodoo petitioner Marie Laveau and Jonathan Mack's Cop/Baron Samedi, but I warmed to the lesser roles most.  A Brittenesque aria filmed on a bus (!) and sung by a resolutely damaged, stunningly talented soprano, Lillian Sengpiehl--who for my money offers the top performance of all--is the first sign that there are going to be some sincere operatic moments in this work.  After intermission, Sengpiehl steps into the stage in a large way, exchanging tense moments with the Good Man, Cedric Barry, a kind of Paul Robeson figure within the production, left by the flood to whittle wood near a Samuel Mockbee-like catastrophe of a former house installed by Mason Cooley.

Lillian Sengpiehl
All the sets deserve notice, even if they offer considerable challenges to the sight lines; all are artistic installations that are also obliged to bear considerable loads with considerable structural integrity--which we expect of the master carpenters in major opera houses but presents special challenges to other companies.  One such set, a hospital by Jeff Kopp which doubles as a cat-walk, on which delightful nurses Maria Elena Altany and Ji Young Yang perform a writhing, eroticized duet, offers both a functioning window and a trap door the singers must crawl through and contort on; this is downtown staging and their number ends up more fun (and certainly more sexually charged) than, say, the Flower duet from Lakmé.

There are also Brechtian moments aplenty in Crescent City; from the opportune bawdy trombone blaring through a wonderful tranny stage act (by capably leggy Timur Bekbosunov, in platform acrylic heels), to the sneaky narrative percussive moments scattered throughout, there is a lot of Weill especially (in fact, the opera that most comes to mind is the Brecht/Weill composition The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which we've also seen in LA in recent years).  Even as Brechtian, Brittenesque, and Messaien-like moments unfurl, there are also...some spectacular flameouts.

Unfortunately, the work falls apart right after the magnificent operatic moments between Sengpiehl and Berry, as the city does itself in the work's final quarter, when you begin to realize that the libretto is a great idea but often badly executed in the song stuff, so riddled with s-words and obvious gratuitous rhymes as to be annoying by the tiresome, stalling denouement. 

I appreciate the fact that a large part of the story of Katrina was the filth it left behind, and the fact that flood waters move sloooowly--but certainly this is the most uninteresting part of the story of all, and by the twentieth calling of it to your attention, you're as exhausted as the survivors of the muck that is floating your way.  Which I don't consider a good thing.  Douglas Kearney's libretto is more straightforwardly narrative than previous reviewers have recognized--there is simply too much to note here, and I suppose it has been the critics rather than the piece that feel scrambled by it all.  But it really could have benefited from some sagacity and perhaps some distance from the production team, who must have felt that the only possible ending was a long, low, lugubrious, painfully slow rumbling to the usual apocalyptic crescendo we see in too much community theater companies, hoping to make noise big enough to strut their bona fides.  If, say, more choral moments--of which there are far too few--were left out at the expense of prolonging the interminable end, then someone simply fell asleep at the wheel, too much in love with an Idea to make things right.

[Probably the top moment in the whole piece for me is when the city itself is called, with magnificent understatement, "A pretty bad thing."  Schoenberg once wrote that operatic poetry had to be less inspired and more ordinary to succeed, but the libretto of Crescent City is not ordinary enough; it is too trite and too singsongy and too mired by mud and muck.]

This work took six years to complete--I note it took Meredith Wilson eight to write The Music Man, and I think Crescent City could have used even more time in the making.  As it is, it's something you'll be glad you saw, and probably will refer to your less plugged-in friends with a few caveats.

Crescent City runs through Sunday, May 27 at 3245 Casitas Street in Atwater.  Ticket information is here.