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Tenor Joe Dan Harper Steals the Spotlight in LCCE’s Death and a Knight

November 7, 2017

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Last weekend, in its most ambitious program to date, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble mounted two chamber operas, both written within the last three years by Kurt Rohde.

Two new, good operas is a lot to ask of any composer, so it’s not disappointing that only one is enjoyable. Death With Interruptions, adapted from the José Saramago novel, has plenty of onstage help from some of the Bay Area’s best performers (including Volti Chorus), but fails to charm — and it tries, hard.

Like so many of Saramago’s stories, Death has a fantastical central conceit — a female Grim Reaper, who ultimately spares the life of her lover — that requires special care to come off. The book balances good writing with sufficiently large omissions, gaps to be perfectly filled in by the individual reader. But Rohde’s opera (finished in 2015 and revised this year) doesn’t have this advantage, and too much goes on, diluting any impact that might have been there. The music, though frequently changing, is forgettable, and redundant narration is especially irritating when the core characters are so tired.

The newer Never was a knight…, on the other hand, is an immediate success — thorns and all. With text from Don Quixote, it’s a serious and long monodrama, with little humor, no linear plot, and lots of beautiful music.

Hazy deathbed recollections, weaving in and out of time, prohibit any real sense of character. Wandering around the stage with a spear and shield, tenor Joe Dan Harper looks one part Wotan, one part Tartuffe. Indeed, he wanders for a long time, and after, the show feels like a blur; trimmer sides would facilitate stronger memories. The stage (in director/set designer David Humphrey’s production) is a void: both the space and the musicians are dressed in a pure, liminal white.

And yet there are also abundances. In his program notes, Rohde refers to the picaresque novel, the genre of episodic narrative that strings together characters and events without respect to dramatic tension. In fact, in Never was a knight… is a deluge of both text and instruments: all of the ensemble players, in addition to speaking and otherwise acting, sing and perform on instruments they do not normally play. In the background, projections by Jennifer Coates quietly augment the scene.

More isn’t always more. Half of the text could be excised, given the beauty of Edith Grossman’s translation; some of the most poetic lines positively whizz by. The instrumental musicians’ sung chorale is a highlight, but in spoken dialogues, their chiming in feels ill-directed: clunky and over-earnest, like freshly matriculated theater students (Rohde is a UC Davis professor).

But the music is gorgeous, its lyricism buoyed by Rohde’s imaginative hand for orchestration. It’s an unusual ensemble (conducted by Matilda Hofman, with Phyllis Kamrin, viola; Michel Taddei, double bass; Jonathan Szin, clarinets; Michael Hernandez, saxophones; Jason Park, trumpet; Loren Mach, percussion; and Karen Rosenak, piano) in which each voice measurably contributes to the fascinating proliferation of sounds. Plunking out the notes of his sung melody, Harper forms a memorable duo with pianist Rosenak — her standing to pluck the strings added flourish. This strumming blends into the band of ukuleles, played by the ensemble musicians in a way that both contributes to the score’s novelty and keeps the work whole.

Everyone involved in this production is a star, but this is Harper’s show, and he carries it. Rarely does he stop singing (and strumming, and hitting a metal pan), and yet he acts so completely that even the most awkward of physical motions, such as gesturing with bows in each hand, seem authentic. He’s reportedly wanted to do a Don Quixote adaptation for 20 years, and it shows: even without the channel of a traditional dramatic arc, his emotional range shines through as limitless. He also assembled the text, and, on recorder, was the highlight of Death With Interruptions. A true renaissance man.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.

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