Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
Bed and Sofa: A Silent Movie Opera
Also see Jeffrey's review of The Fantasticks
Set in 1920s Moscow, this three-person chamber opera tells the poignant tale of a stonemason named Kolya and his wife Ludmilla. Together they live in a small flat in a working class neighborhood. The original title of the film roughly translates to "third bourgeois street," so the story as a whole would seem a social commentary on the supposed plight of this working class segment of the population. When Kolya's friend from the army, Volodya, comes to Moscow in search of employment, Kolya and Ludmilla offer him their sofa. Ludmilla and Kolya sleep just feet away in their bed on the other side of the dressing screen. With Moscow in a housing shortage, Volodya finds work but has not yet been able to find another place to live when Kolya gets a job out of town for a few weeks. Kolya eagerly takes the job, feeling confident in leaving his friend Volodya to watch over his wife Ludmilla. But, while he is away, Ludmilla and Volodya begin having an affair; and when Kolya returns it is he who now sleeps on the sofa while Volodya sleeps in the bed with Ludmilla. Soon after this Ludmilla makes an announcement that changes their lives even more drastically than before.
When the film was released in March of 1927, the way in which the subject matter of sex, marriage, infidelity, women's rights, and abortion was handled was considered so controversial that Tretya Meshchanskaya was banned both in Russia and the United States.
Bed and Sofa: A Silent Movie Opera is reminiscent of so many other (mostly one act) operas done in college conservatories or by opera company's young artists programs. It reminded me somewhat of Bernstein's Trouble In Tahiti. I have seen and or been in enough similar pieces years ago to appreciate the genre as something that can be both challenging and charming for both cast and audience. For a commercial theatre company, however, it can be an undertaking that places them in rough and uncharted waters.
The set is as simple as it needs to be to serve the action that takes place mainly in the basement apartment. In truth it is probably exactly how this family would be living in this time period. One main room with a sofa, a couple of chairs, and a table at which to eat. Next to that a dressing screen shielding the bed from the rest of the room, and an unseen kitchen off to the side. A train station bench is placed further downstage toward the audience. Some lighting issues make the train station area too dark in the beginning of the opera, obscuring whatever acting is taking place in the dark.
The live musical accompaniment consists of a trio of musicians composed of music director Caryl Fantel on piano, cellist Konstantin Litvinenko, and violinist Liuba Ohrimenko (both of whom play with the Miami Symphony Orchestra). The music is simply beautifuland beautifully played. There were a few times when my ears led me completely away from what was being sung to focus instead on the lovely melodic lines being played by the violin and cello as they both swelled and grew plaintive. It was, in fact, my favorite part of this piece.
The three singers navigate their way through this opera with varying degrees of success despite the fact that none of them truly have the vocal chops required of this piece. Elvin Negron (Kolya) has a pleasant, well-placed baritone sound that lends itself nicely to his role. His acting is also well suited to the piece. His character is nether dark nor brusque, but simply pragmatic and not inclined to be romantic.
Rebecca Diaz (Ludmilla) is delightful to watch as an actress. Her character is always likeable even though she is the cause of all the turmoil. She is charming in the movie theatre scene with Volodya as she chuckles apologetically at her own unbridled outburst in response to the film. Throughout the show Diaz struggles vocally in the area around her break, and her voice tends to sound thin at the bottom of her head voice. It does not always lend itself to blending as well with the other voices as it should. That said, however, she does a fine job both singing and acting in a shining solo moment at the train station scene near the end of the show.
This is a show not best suited to demonstrate to the comedic talents of Noah Levine (Volodya). His reedy sounding voice is too often off-center of his pitch in group numbers. He seems to also be unsure of his placement in solo moments. Worst of all, he seems to be aware of his vocal shortcomings, as his normally sure acting choices seemed hesitant and/or not reflected in his facial expressions. Aside from a warm moment shared with Ludmilla as the movie theatre, his character fails to connect with the audience.
There is some very good direction in this production. I wish everyone who staged an opera would pay as much attention to the acting moments, and give us less of people just standing and singing as if in a recital. However, with all due respect to Outré and all the other local South Florida theatre companies, you do not do an opera without classically trained voices. In the same way, you do not do a ballet like "Swan Lake" without legitimately trained ballet dancers. In all fairness, there are indeed some musical theatre singers who have that training. Contemporary examples are Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth (with a Masters in Opera Performance) and Audra McDonald (with a BA in Classical Voice from Julliard). To cast someone in an opera who is not truly equipped and trained to sing in that manner is a disservice to everyone involved. We can all pretend it's a pleasant enough evening's entertainment, but the trained musicians and the savvy audience members in the crowd know the score.
The Outré Theatre production of Bed and Sofa: A Silent Movie Opera will be appearing through September 13, 2015, in the Abdo New River Room of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Ft. Lauderdale. For information and tickets, visit Outrétheatrecompany.com.
The Broward Center for the Performing Arts is located in the Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District at 201 SW Fifth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, FL. It houses the Au-Rene Theater, the Amaturo Theatre, and the Abdo New River Room, and has affiliated venues at the Parker Playhouse, the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center, and the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center. The Abdo space features cabaret style seating and table service and a full bar.
The Outré Theatre Company began in 2011. They are an emerging professional theatre company hiring local Equity, and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their vision is to be a theatre that nurtures the creative spirit of individuals and the community through original and established works, utilizing a variety of mediums to engage the souls and imaginations of the artists and the audience. Their mission is to create theatre which stimulates thought, provokes reflection, and encourages activism.