By Ken Bullock
All of us to be replaced
By a smiling china face ...
A screen of translucent panels parts reveals a bed with a blonde woman (Marnie Breckenridge as Nelle) in profile, her hand poised above the bed. Running her fingers along the covers, she brings about a curious, profane resurrection that is touched on throughout Berkeley Opera’s Chrysalis.
Cosmetics magnate Ellen Ermaine (Buffy Baggott) is gently lifted from sleep, while her double, Nelle, crouches behind the bed, watching her impishly, intently, as Ellen fields cellphone calls, regards herself with care in a hand mirror (Nelle always on the other side of the glass), dresses and on to her Big Day, announcing her new beauty line, named after “Hathor The Golden One, Mistress Of Heaven.”
So the present-day romance of transformation by John O’Keefe unfolds to Clark Suprynowicz’s score in the world premiere of Chrysalis at the Julia Morgan Theatre, an event no aficionado of the performing arts will want to miss.
Suprynowicz has used other euphemisms for Chrysalis besides opera, but it accomplishes very much what an opera is supposed to: a compounding of the arts through performance, the result of a brilliant collaboration. All at once, it’s splendid orchestral music (by the 20-piece San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Berkeley Opera’s Jonathan Khuner, alternating with Sara Jobin), singing, theater and expertly designed spectacle (stage direction and design by Mark Streshinsky).
John O’Keefe’s libretto is wonderfully operatic, a modern Gothic tale of frantic industry and repressed passion, that reaches back to the Baroque allegories that proliferated as masques and what Monteverdi and Purcell scored.
The tale is satiric—with a truly satyric chorus—and compels much knowing laughter from the audience. But it’s not Opera Buffa nor Comique, having an air of the fantastic, perhaps distantly reminiscent of The Tales of Hoffmann in tone.
And the music’s no fantasia. Firmly grounded in the evolution of modern orchestration through the composer’s integral use of the full ensemble, the score touches on various points in that history, from chromaticism to contemporary developments without quoting or becoming a showcase of “hommages.”
It’s supple enough as a whole piece to move quickly and effortlessly from the shimmer of bright, ascending chords and shimmering allusiveness, but not Impressionistic atmospherics, to wonderful melodic intervals and tunes that are every bit the refreshing airs of true opera, not academic echoing of famous arias. There are excellent passages of flute and percussion, including cymbal and xylophone, and a recurrent mysterious throbbing hum, arrived at by different means (including Rachel Erickson’s electric keyboard) that resembles the sound of a bullroarer, epop—or archaic throat-singing.
The singers’ excellence extends to their acting, Baggott driven yet more and more haunted as executive Ellen, and Breckenridge pert and insouciant, more kid sister than evil twin.
Her escape from the mirror and assuming of Ellen’s identity draws universal comment that the metamorphosis is an improvement.
Igor Vieira as Ellen’s paramour, Timothy—dismissed by rampaging Nelle—inverts his romantic persona in a triumphant display of his own personal cosmetic branding in one of the more outrageously amusing theatrical coups. And John Minagro plays psychiatrist Dr. Zehn with a humorous deadpan, as he glides in and out of the action, seated in his office behind fetishes and statuettes, like the illustrious founder of his profession.
Mark Streshinsky’s stage design and direction shows the deft, light touch that characterizes Chrysalis throughout. His use of the mobile screen flexibly defines space, from bedroom to psychiatrist’s office to corporate headquarters to the bar where chorus and principals meet and gossip, silently gliding in and out and across stage, clapping shut only once, when the screen seems to swallow the figures it framed.
Mary Gallahue’s costumes mirror the simple, effective color scheme, from black for the principals and clinical white for chorus and psychiatrist, that allows for the sudden burst of color at the end when Nelle “comes out,” trailed by now-sidelined Ellen.
“Beauty isn’t skin deep any more.”
Perfect timing and staging throughout broke down only for a moment as the collaborators appeared together for a happily ragged curtain call.
Clark Suprynowicz is an occasional contributor to the Berkeley Daily Planet.
Berkeley Opera presents Clark Suprynowicz’s Chrysalis at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday;
8 p.m. Friday; and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave. For more information or tickets, call (925) 798-1300 or see www.berkeleyopera.org.
Plastic surgery is the topic of the new opera Chrysalis at the Julia Morgan Theatre