Impressive Results for West Edge Opera's End of the Affair

August 3, 2014


LUCAS KRECH/WEST EDGE OPERA Soprano Carrie Hennessey portrays Sarah Miles,In its continuing search for a new permanent East Bay home, Berkeley’s West Edge Opera is presenting its current three-production season in the atrium of the Ed Roberts Campus, thus fulfilling three things on Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky’s wish list: return the company to its city of origin, present opera in an unconventional venue, and do such in a compact three-week festival format.

The Ed Roberts Campus (ERC), located at the Ashby BART station in Berkeley, is an award-winning, uniquely designed facility dedicated to services for people with disabilities. Its attractive atrium is bright and spacious and marked by a dramatic spiraling ramp, but it is also distinctly non-theatrical.

It must have taken a good deal of imagination and a certain amount of courage to understand the possibilities of the space, but West Edge’s creative team managed to create a functional, and most of all intimate performance space for its three operas of this concentrated season: Puccini’s La bohème, Philip Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, and the Bay Area premiere of Jake Heggie’s The End of the Affair, which I attended on Sunday.

Heggie’s opera, with a libretto by Heather McDonald, was given its world premiere in 2004 at Houston Grand Opera, to mixed reviews. It is based on the 1951 novel of the same name by English writer Graham Greene (1904-1991). It is one of his four ‘Catholic novels,’ in which the author’s faith plays a large part in plot and character.

The story is set in London during and just after World War II, and centers around the adulterous affair between writer Maurice Bendrix, and Sarah Miles. Her husband is a civil servant who is “a bore and a fool,” but she refuses to divorce him.

After Sarah abruptly breaks off the affair, Maurice finds out via Sarah’s diary (stolen by a private detective) that Sarah ended their affair as part of a bargain with God. Convinced that Maurice had died in a German bombing raid, she promised to never see him again if God would let him live.

With her strong lyricism and impressive stage presence, soprano Carrie Hennessey gave voice — and body — to Sarah’s fears and frustration, her yearning for Maurice, dreams about what could be, and her newfound religious fervor.

Maurice tries to win her back but finds Sarah ill and exhausted on her deathbed; she dies before he can take her away. Her passing triggers a number of miraculous events, including Maurice’s indirect acknowledgement of God’s existence by asking Him angrily to ‘please leave me alone.’

With her strong lyricism and impressive stage presence, soprano Carrie Hennessey gave voice — and body — to Sarah’s fears and frustration, her yearning for Maurice, dreams about what could be, and her newfound religious fervor.

Baritone Keith Phares sang the role of Maurice Bendrix in earlier productions of The End of the Affair at the Madison Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City. He has honed the vocal and dramatic complexities of the part to perfection and the pure indignation with which he vents his anger at God after Sarah’s death was awe-inspiring.

Equally strong as actors and singers were the outstanding baritone Philip Skinner as Henry Miles — Sarah’s dull husband — and the delightful soprano Donna Olson as Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Bertram, who was both flirty in her initial interactions with Maurice, as well as grief-stricken and contemplative when faced with the imminent death of her child.

Tenor Michael Jankosky, who recently did good work with the American Bach Soloists, sang an excellent Richard Smythe (Sarah’s new love interest), but the nicely acting tenor Mark Hernandez (Parkis), was vocally out of his league in this ensemble.

The ECR atrium is by no means an opera theater. It is oddly shaped and has many visual distractions, there is too much natural light for stage lighting to be effective — especially during the matinee that I attended — and the orchestra (kudos for the excellent wind players and Jonathan Kuhner’s conducting) is awkwardly stretched out along a side wall.

At the same time, the creative forces at WEO did a lot with a little: There was a system for supertitles, and the multifunctional stage was changed from one location to another with the simple moving of props, some straightforward theatrical and sound effects and the background projection of a war-ear English living room, a church window or a bombed-out London street.

The directness of the staging and the audience’s proximity to the podium created an operatic experience with an immediacy and intensity that is rather unique, but the same cannot be said for Heggie’s score.

His music includes a pleasant cabaret-like song about “Walking the Streets of London”, a lovely duet in which the two lovers reminisce about sharing a plate of sweet onions, and also some strong soaring melodic passages - for instance when Sarah addresses God, asking for favors for others and peace for herself and Maurice.

But most of Heggie’s melodic material is functional at best, dutifully underscoring the emotions in the libretto. His writing is pleasing and colorful in its instrumentation, but nothing that lingers in the mind for very long.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.