Tiny, gutsy Berkeley Opera has served up another world premiere Saturday
night, an impressive, truly NEW opera, Clark Suprynowicz's "Crysalis."
So much has gone into this production, so much talent does it display
that it's surprising that the whole is decidedly less than the sum of
Advertised as story from the near future, the work deals with a world
"where identity is up for grabs and beauty is something purchased over
the counter." In John O'Keefe's libretto, a new cosmetic cream enables
women to change appearances and men to grow breasts (an unexpected new
commodity demand or an aspect of the Faustian bargain untouched by
Goethe), but that's not what "Crysalis" is really about. The title and
main story line have to do with Ellen, the cosmetic company executive,
and her doppelganger, Nelle. Nelle is Ellen spelled backward, you see,
and she hovers over and around Ellen... who suffers from beginning to
end, even while Nelle is having a jolly good time.
Suprynowicz's sparse, angular, "thoroughly modern" music (albeit
with the accessibility of high-grade musicals); splendid performances
by Buffy Baggott (Ellen) and Marnie Breckenridge (Nelle); Mark Streshinsky's
inventive production formed entirely of backlit shoji doors in various
formations; Jonathan Khuner's direction of the San Francisco Chamber
Orchestra in the pit, with sterling work by concertmaster Thomas Yee -
these and more "good parts" fail to come together in a satisfying whole,
probably because you'll have a heck of a time figuring out the story.
Furthermore, if you succeed, the result seems hardly worth the effort.
At the heart of (good) opera is something large: an overwhelming passion,
a breathtaking conflict, stark tragedy, enchantment, great good humor,
etc. That's what is missing from "Chrysalis" - something big, something
gripping, or, even something that makes sense.
In the first scene, with Nelle shadowing her, Ellen wakes up on the day
of her introduction of her "Hathor Line" of magic cosmetic cream, but
she is already in a bad mood, short with her mother on the phone, later
nasty to her lover (who will eventually use the cream for acquiring
unusual pectoral decorations), constantly nervous and tense.
This may or may not have something to do with the potion she is unleashing
on the world or, perhaps, with the (to her) invisible Nelle. In the
last scene, Nelle has taken over, Ellen is still suffering, and the two
engage in a resigned/impassioned duet: ".ah.you could feel me in your
bed. Now won't you touch me as I touch you? ... forever and ever the
same... forever the same." Curtain. Say what?
The scenes that made sense to this Philistine observer of very little
brain are Ellen's sessions with a psychiatrist (the sonorous, poker-faced
John Minagro). From the initial fencing ("what do you mean?" "no, what
do you mean?") to Dr. Zehn's explanation for his question about her
love life ("It's the kind of thing a psychiatrist asks"), here are the
makings of a fine opera comique. But when the heroine - rich and famous
- staggers around as Lear, when she suffers and suffers, when the
resolution is a tension-filled "unification" of the troubled Ellen and
her happy doppelganger in some kind of psycho-sexual climax - well, one
doesn't quite know what to think... or feel, so it seems best not to
"There is nothing that we can't change" goes the slogan of the mighty
multinational firm putting out the Hathor Line. If the cream could be
applied to the opera, especially the libretto, the change should be away
from a veritable paradigm of inconsequential puzzlement.
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