Continuing this season’s focus on women, the Berkeley Opera presented Vivian Fine’s 1978 chamber opera “The Women in the Garden” last weekend.
This intensely personal feminist work imagines four women artists--writers Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf, and dancer Isadora Duncan--meeting in a garden, where they discuss their life, work, and philosophy.
Fine was a prolific composer with a long career ending with her death in 2000. Her daughter, Peggy Karp, and granddaughter, Keli Fine, both now live in the Bay Area. For this production, they joined with stage director Melissa Weaver to write a short theatrical introduction to the opera. It depicted Fine (Amanda Moody) walking in her garden with her young granddaughter (Cecily Khuner), looking at what Fine calls “some of my favorite flowers.” Each represents one of the four opera characters, and Fine instructs her grandchild to learn from their lives.
The 75-minute opera followed, with each character introducing herself. Although successive scenes include duets, trios, and quartets, there is actually little interaction among the singers. Most of the time, each seems preoccupied with her own thoughts and dreams. The exception is Gertrude Stein (Jennifer Palmer Boesing), who brings humor and warmth to even the most abstract aphorisms, engaging at times with the one male character (tenor Stephen Rumph), who acts as a sort of Everyman in this female world.
“Women” is a highly cerebral work, not terribly accessible as operas go. There is no dramatic action to speak of. What little interaction takes place is fleeting and inconclusive. Most of the time, the four women muse on philosophy or comment on their own lives in a libretto drawn from their writings. The Berkeley Opera program contained much-needed notes and descriptions of each scene, written by the composer and Judith Jamieson, without which the opera would probably have been incomprehensible.
It is the music that gives the piece form and coherence. Fine experimented through her life with modernism, atonality, and many of the innovations of 20th-century music, but her later music embraced harmony and counterpoint as well. “Women” is filled with beautiful interweaving melodies, from a lovely, melancholy soprano and flute duet to a moving harmonic quartet in which Duncan laments the death of her children and the other women gather to comfort her. There is an abundance of musical wit and delight, as well. Stein and the Tenor engage in a musical debate on human nature that is a virtuosi duet of humorous counterpoint and rhythm.
The nine-piece orchestra directed by Lisa Riley was in fine form, and the five singers all demonstrated considerable talent and ease with the challenging score. Narelle Yeo was a sweet-voiced Dickinson, Lanier McNab a suitably dramatic Duncan, and Melissa Xanthe Stevens was prim in the role of Virginia Woolf. Rumph, a Berkeley Opera regular, displayed a warm and appealing tenor voice. Most rewarding to hear was Boesing in the character of Stein. A strong and expressive mezzo-soprano, she admirably fulfilled her role as the narrator who holds the whole work together, both musically (her repeated aphorisms serving as leitmotifs) and dramatically. It is Stein who joins the Tenor in friendship at the conclusion of the opera, suggesting a resolution to male-female conflict.
This production was held at the Hillside Club, whose tiny space was well suited to the intimate nature of the opera. Stage director Melissa Weaver made the most of the small room, with imaginative direction around a central “tree” hung with lights and draped in glittery chiffon, that served as the focal point for a theater-in-the-round presentation. The audience seating was unfortunate, however. Without bleachers or raised seats, anyone who was not lucky enough to be sitting in one of the front rows had to endure obscured views for most of the performance—disappointing after paying $30 a ticket.
Berkeley Opera’s 2002 season theme is “Cherchez la Femme,” an examination of women from various perspectives. The season kicked off in February with “Cosi Fan Tutte,” Mozart’s comic opera about jealousy and romantic rivalry.
The Opera returns to its usual space at the Julia Morgan Center later this summer. The season finale is a revival of local composer David Scott Marley’s opera “The Riot Grrrl on Mars,” inspired by Rossini’s “The Italian in Algiers,” opening July 19. For information, call (510) 841-1903 or check out the company’s website at www.berkeleyopera.com.