Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

A Strongly sung Black Water
from Off-Center Opera

Also see David's review of Heartbreak House

Kimberly Giordano and John Bumbalo
I don't in any way anoint myself an opera critic, but the subject matter of the contemporary opera Black Water - a thinly disguised rumination on the Senator Edward Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne tragedy at Chappaquiddick - as well as the opportunity to see rising Seattle soprano Kimberly Giordano sink her teeth into the juicy lead female role, brought me to Off-Center Opera's production at the Seattle Center House.

This dark, depressing work, with a libretto by Joyce Carol Oates based on her own controversial novel and music by John Duffy, receives a respectful if often static staging by Melanie White. It tells the tale of Kelly, an amiable if rather aimless young woman who attends a July 4, 1991 picnic which is attended by an amorous, much older Senator. Despite warnings from her friends, Kelly, smitten and awed, goes off with the inebriated politico, who drives his car into the water, escaping himself but leaving the unfortunate girl to drown in the sunken vehicle.

Oates' tale is morbidly compelling, but her lyrics are often banal and endlessly repetitive. Composer Duffy on the other hand jibes his music with a great deal of variety. Kelly's music before she meets the Senator is wistfully romantic and nearly rhapsodic as she succumbs to his worldly allure. The passages when she is waiting for rescue in the submerged car are full of pathos, misplaced hope, and increasing dread. Duffy also writes well for Kelly's friends, and indeed the ensemble music is often impressive. The music for the Senator, however, as well as Oates' depiction of him fails to make us see what Kelly sees in the man.

Kimberly Giordano (who shares these West Coast premiere performances of this role with its originator Karen Burlingame) acts the role of Kelly with shading and conviction, and sings the score with beauty and passion. Giordano never makes a martyr of her character, but invests her performance with such warmth and heart that it practically made me want to hiss John Bumbalo as the Senator. In spite of Bumbalo's undeniable vocal prowess, he is never able to invest his character with the kind of charm that might account for Kelly's infatuation with him.  Signe Mortensen, as Buffy the hostess of the July 4 picnic, is another standout in the cast, playing another young woman involved with an older, married man, yet wise enough to counsel Kelly not to go off with the Senator. Sean T. Miller as Kelly's frustrated would be suitor Lucius and Laird M. Thornton as the Senator's confederate (and Buffy's lover) Roy also have strong moments. Though music director Susan McDonald might have gotten clearer diction from her ensemble cast, they are musically speaking well above average throughout, and McDonald's assured touch at the piano is the centerpiece of an excellent trio of musicians.

Despite my reservations, I cannot help but admire Off-Center Opera for approaching such a challenging work and giving younger opera talents a showcase that should definitely open doors to further opportunities.

Black Water, a production of Off-Center Opera at Seattle Center House Theatre runs through August 27. For further information, visit

Photo: Tom Sunderland

- David-Edward Hughes

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