Note: Many thanks to Michael Berg for this guest review. I am thrilled to have talented writers, such as Michael, who help expand the geographical reach of the Sybaritic Singer. Read more about Michael at the end of this post. – Sybaritic Singer
Alongside the frequent (and highly publicized) struggles of large opera companies, there lies a compelling trend: a growing wealth of smaller-scale opera companies that prioritize innovative productions of everything from standard repertoire to obscure gems to entirely new works. Rhymes With Opera is a perfect example of such a company. Since their founding in 2007, they have provided consistently high-quality performances of new operas, often in varying stages of development. Friday night’s concert performance of Heartbreak Express at the charming H.B. Playwrights Theater is no exception; in this semi-staged reading, RWO treated its audience to selections from this compelling new piece, which the company hopes to present fully staged before long. Kudos to RWO for the evening’s inventive programming: they invited pop trio Siren to perform small sets between the selected numbers from the opera. In the spirit of the opera, the trio played several Dolly Parton songs, while including several original pieces as well as selections by everybody from Beyoncé to Alanis Morissette. Between their intricate harmonies and clever arrangements of well-known works, Siren’s delightful performance provided a perfect counterpart to the opera.
Heartbreak Express tells the story of four Dolly Parton fans who have an opportunity to meet the country star, first focusing on their interaction as they arrive at Dollywood and then on their reactions afterward. These four fans, supervised and herded by Ms. Parton’s assistant, arrive in two couples: LuAnne and Darlene are middle-aged sisters who dressed in angel-wing costumes for the meeting, and Don and Travis are a couple whose entire home is a shrine devoted to Dolly paraphernalia. For Darlene and Travis, meeting Ms. Parton has the air of a holy experience, on which they pin hopes for some form of personal salvation or revelation; their counterparts, LuAnne and Don, are not as devoted, but make the trip out of a combination of love and obligation. During the interview, Darlene has a nervous breakdown, and LuAnne—who appeared not to expect much from Dolly—is struck by her graciousness and sensitivity. Travis, meanwhile, is crushed by the fact that Dolly does not (indeed, can not) live up to his expectations, and Don is deeply troubled by his partner’s obsessive behavior both before and after the interview.
Dolly Parton superfandom makes it to the opera stage with Rhymes With Opera’s “Heartbreak Express.” tweet this
The structure of the piece is, in effect, a Classical or Baroque aria writ large: the first act is expository recitative, while the second act is a series of lyrical reflections in which the characters relate the experience of meeting their idol. The libretto, written by John Clum (who also served as director for the production), adroitly contrasts witty and fast-paced dialog with poignant reflection throughout the piece. George Lam’s score is evocative and nuanced, featuring a muted perpetual motion in the orchestra ensemble out of which individual instruments emerge to intertwine with the vocalists. Under the baton of Joon Andrew Choi, the orchestra played with precision and expression, providing the perfect counterpart to the narrative as it unfolds.
The singers appeared more comfortable with the music of the second act than with the recitative-like music in the first; there were moments of discomfort for all four as they navigated the less lyrical passages, but they acquitted themselves well overall. Soprano Elisabeth Halliday sang the role of LuAnne with crystalline intensity, particularly in her stunning performance of the Act II aria, “Ease This Burden.” Soprano Karen Hayden (Darlene) conveyed charming naïveté with her well-crafted presentation of the younger sister, singing with earnest warmth. In the role of Travis, baritone Robert Maril sang with searing fervor, effectively portraying the character’s blinding obsession and the crippling disillusionment he experiences after meeting Dolly. Baritone Gerald Yarbray (Don) sang with subtlety and expressivity, doing a marvelous job of acting with the voice and reacting to his partner’s worrying mania. And countertenor Peter Thoresen (the Assistant) sang with agility and passion in a role that ebbed and flowed between comic relief and eerie reflection.
All told, RWO’s concert reading of Heartbreak Express was an engaging performance that the full house enjoyed with great enthusiasm. The second and final performance was Saturday, November 15th, but if you found yourself unable to attend, don’t fret: RWO has promised a fully staged production, which—if it lives up to the promise of last night’s performance—will be a marvelous experience for all involved.
Michael Berg serves as the Administrative Director of the Chautauqua Opera Company; he also works as a freelance writer and development consultant.