Review: Morning Star World Premiere

Cincinnati Opera presented debut performance Tuesday night

click to enlarge 'Morning Star'
'Morning Star'

Morning Star, the new opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William Hoffman, had its world premiere last night before a near-capacity audience in the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater. Based on a 1940 play by Sylvia Regan, the story follows a Jewish immigrant family in the early decades of the 20th century. Think of it as a follow-up to the Tevye family from Fiddler on the Roof coming to America and having to abandon all that tradition.

Morning Star was originally commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Goodman Theater but was dropped when artistic differences killed the collaboration. In 2012, Opera Fusion: New Works offered Gordon and Hoffman the opportunity to rework Morning Star. The final result is light-years from what was heard in workshops, but to paraphrase a line from the opera, the story abides.

Gordon writes beautifully for the voice and his score has moments of dramatic intensity, playfulness and heartbreaking beauty. He’s a favorite among American singers, so it’s not surprising how great the singing is — but that’s also thanks to Ron Daniel’s staging.

Daniels also guided the shaping of the piece, strengthening the drama and developing characters. But there are still problems with the libretto. Many of Hoffman’s images and lines are poetic but much of the rhymed verses are more distracting than descriptive. But when he nails it, the words and music are a gorgeous synthesis.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Manhattan serves as a framing device and a looming presence. On March 25, 1911, the Triangle erupted in flames, killing 146 workers — mostly young immigrant women who were trapped by locked doors, non-functioning elevators and broken fire escapes.

The opera’s prologue is a brilliant evocation of the public viewing of the victims in the factory, which took place during a torrential downpour. Against a background of images from that day, singers clad in raincoats and holding black umbrellas recite accounts of what took place as the music swirls into a collective moan.

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire serves as a framing device and a looming presence. In March 1911, the Triangle erupted in flames, killing 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, who were trapped by locked doors, non-functioning elevators, and broken fire escapes.

The opera’s prologue is a brilliant evocation of the public viewing of the victims in the factory, which took place during a torrential downpour. Against a background of images from that day, singers clad in raincoats and holding black umbrellas recite accounts of what took place as the music swirls into a collective moan.

Widow Becky Felderman presides over her family of three teenaged daughters and a young son. Like many immigrant families, the Feldermans have a border, Aaron, who happens to come from the same village and is a friend of the family. He also happens to be in love with Becky.

It’s a terrific cast made up of some of the best American voices out there. Jeanine De Bique stole the show as Pearl with a velvety, lyric mezzo that elevated her aria “I See Colors” into a showpiece. Soprano Twyla Robinson’s Becky has a sweetness tempered by determination and she’ll break your heart when she sings “The Family Abides.”  The daughters get powerful performances from Elizabeth Zharoff, Jennifer Zetlan and Elizabeth Pojanowski.

Andrew Bidlack sings the title song with great style. Andrew Lovato is a sensitive and sympathetic Harry Engel, the unhappy husband of Sadie Felderman. Morgan Smith is an amazing baritone and I wish that Aaron’s character had more depth, but Smith makes it his own and it’s worth hearing.

Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design incorporates the Triangle factory and Wendall K. Harrington’s projections are used to great effect, particularly in the prologue and in the final ensemble in which the fire claims its victims.

Is it perfect? No. But it’s got staying power, a score with a lot of memorable music, and this production features voices you should hear. Bravo to Cincinnati Opera and Opera Fusion: New Works for fostering this project.

And damned if I can’t get that song “Morning Star” out of my head.


MORNING STAR continues through July 19 at SCPA’s Corbett Theater. More info: cincinnatiopera.com.

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