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New Opera Takes the Cure

[whitespace] UCSC collaborators' 'Opium: Diary of a Cure' proves addictive musical theater

By Philip Collins

The premiere of Opium: Diary of a Cure, a new opera by composer Aaron Seeman/Siegelbaum and author Tim Fitzmaurice was welcomed eagerly by capacity crowds at the UCSC Music Recital Hall Feb. 28-March 1.

The appreciation was well deserved. Opium is a work of high imagination and impact. Most notably, it is the product of inspired collaboration in all respects, a virtue too rarely demonstrated in the vast majority of contemporary operas.

Lamentably, the run lasted only two nights. Music theater--of any scale--is expensive to produce. Considering that the project was Seeman/Siegelbaum's graduate recital, even one performance was a high-wire act. Opening night went extremely well. Despite occasional shaky moments and faulty tunings, the power of this new work prevailed.

Seeman/Siegelbaum corralled an excellent cast of performers whose musical assets were paired with dramatic savvy and evident commitment. The chamber orchestra, led by Rebecca Seeman (the composer's sister and co-producer), provided a resonant throughline that supported the dramatic activities to the utmost. A good deal of the opera's allure stems from Seeman/Siegelbaum's sensitive orchestral writing, and the conductor's attentive direction brought much of it to the fore.

Rebecca Cress' staging was also excellent. The scenes and most of the segues between them benefited from thoughtful elaborations of movement and blocking that complemented the music wonderfully.

Fundamental to the opera's success is the simpatico that Seeman/Siegelbaum and Fitzmaurice struck up during the course of the work's four-year gestation. Fitzmaurice's libretto offers delicious opportunities for musical interpretation, with a range that encompasses preposterous flights of fantasy as well as plenty of intellectual meat. The lyrics are gratifyingly singable, too.

Seeman/Siegelbaum took full advantage of the situation. Like Fitzmaurice's libretto, his score is incisive while bordering on the surreal. And yet it is stubbornly logical in its depiction of absurdities.

Musical Escher

The nature of the opera's narrative, as such, is not easily summarized, and it is as intricately wound as an M.C. Escher drawing. A carnival of occurrences unfold within the single setting of a sanitarium room where the French poet/artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast) is undergoing the eighth and final day of his treatment for opium addiction.

Fitzmaurice writes in his program notes that his work is "in response to the journal of Jean Cocteau," and that the opera could be interpreted as a dream Cocteau might have experienced during this final stage of withdrawal.

The opera's title proves particularly apt for Fitzmaurice's aims, and the subtitle, "A comic opera about the tragedy of human character," is even more to the point. Fitzmaurice proposes that the propensity toward addictive behavior in humans is universal and that its various manifestations reach beyond the realm of drugs.

To these ends, Fitzmaurice mirrors Cocteau's opium addiction with characters who are defined by obsessions of co-dependent love and maniacal professionalism. That Fitzmaurice and Seeman/Siegelbaum actually manage to put across a viable psychoanalytical theory in so entertaining a manner merits a bravo in and of itself.

The cast consists basically of three couples, with Jean (as in Cocteau) and his Vietnamese lover, Ho (as in Chi Minh), at the center. Angel, a male orderly, and Edith, a nurse, provide the obsessive love component, while The Doctor and The Priest are delusional from dogma. Furthermore, there is a dancing snake that preys on everyone's weaknesses and a chorus that sings from within a mirror when not engaged in assorted mimed activities.

The events are irrepressibly bizarre throughout, and the references, both musical and literary, are farfetched. Cocteau's love of Marx Brothers movies is honored in several good slapstick scenes, and his fondness for the musical Showboat is indicated by quotes from the score, most notably the song "Old Man River."

In Todd Donovan, Seeman/Siegelbaum found a perfect Jean. Donovan's rich baritone and beguiling stage presence anchored the production from the outset. Considering that he was onstage almost every scene, nothing less would have sufficed. As Ho, tenor Craig O'Donnell was equally fine, and his clear, shining tone coupled Donovan's midrange handsomely.

Natalie Widman played up her part as Edith the Nurse with ravenous aplomb, and Joshua Bongers' low-key manner as her lover, Angel, generated laughs continuously. Fanaticism was the prescription for The Doctor, and bass John Whooley went right over the top with the part, as did Teresa Wiersbianska as The Priest.

One hopes that Seeman/Siegelbaum and Fitzmaurice meet as much success pedaling their wares to opera companies as they enjoyed in producing this premiere. They have come up with something quite outstanding, and it merits much more than a two-night stand.

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Web extra to the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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