University Opera Makes a Case for “Transformations”

The Conrad Susa/Anne Sexton opera is given a compelling performance

When it comes to finding an opportunity to experience operatic roads far less traveled by, thank heavens for University Opera: While doing their part in training young singers and crews with staples like last autumn’s Marriage of Figaro, they do themselves and their audience an invaluable service in staging works such as Conrad Susa’s still-provocative 1973 opus, Transformations. Reviewed Sunday afternoon, the second of three performances, a large audience at the Music Hall was challenged emotionally, musically and psychologically.

Possibly few were surprised at the challenge; University Opera had done a good job of getting the word out: This is a work based on the writings of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, but ultimately suicidal, Anne Sexton. Her visions in recasting a number of familiar tales from the Brothers Grimm do not lack for adult material, but more importantly, this is a work that simply must be engaged by folks ready to do battle, so to speak; for all we know some audience members come away having reengaged or scored a victory large or small in their own inner beings.

First kudos once more to director David Ronis, who continues to take willing young singers who probably can already act a little and unleash them to where they act a great deal—and sing very well in the bargain. The work requires a cast of eight, all of them in multiple roles, so life on the stage is busy, but never less than clear, whether presenting some wicked humorous twist on Rumpelstiltskin or Snow White, or casting a darker than usual hue on Hansel and Gretel.

Ronis’ staging is to make Anne Sexton a narrator/group therapy leader, and her seven patients proceed to act out the nine vignettes. Cayla Rosche was in the lead on Sunday (the only role that is double cast; Erin K. Bryan resumes the part Tuesday night at 7:30), and she was nothing if not versatile. With a strong, assured voice, she had no issues with Susa’s vocal leaps, and proved deeply moving in the final devastating moments of the opera (“Briar Rose” as pictured above in Henry Meynell Rheam’s depiction of Sleeping Beauty).

Nicole Heinen was also notable as Snow White and various princesses, while the men’s side of the cast was bolstered by guest artists who have long made their mark locally, on this stage and in some cases, Madison Opera: William Ottow, Brian Schneider and Benjamin Schultz.

The orchestra employed by Susa is more of a small band, consisting only of one player for clarinet/sax, one trumpet, cello, trombone, two percussionists and two keyboard players. But what a panoply of sound they produce! Aside from the snappy execution from a technical standpoint, the group played with great assuredness, thanks to the direction of Kyle Knox, fresh off his Madison Opera debut last month. It would seem that it won’t be too long before we have to drive a little farther to audit young Mr. Knox’ work…

Stylistically the work is all over the place, which is to say eclectic in the best sense of the word. Susa can slide in and out of blues, swing and any number of concert hall quotes. Generally the vocal lines run more to the declamatory/conversational than purely melodic, but again, that last section (“Briar Rose”) is heartbreaking stuff musically and emotionally.

The surtitles are complete and well-timed, crucial for many of the humorous bits (a number of times one character is singing a line while another one finishes it from mid-sentence, always to great effect.). The program doesn’t credit a set designer per se, but Ronis had plenty of help in getting the flow of the work right from costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park, lighting designer David Gipson, stage manager Delaney Egan, and technical director Greg Silver. University Opera has done a great service in presenting this work, and it is gratifying to see the response of strong audiences; here’s hoping for one more Tuesday night.

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