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Brad S. Ross


American Chamber Opera Company presents
"Images of Her, a double-bill of world-premiere chamber operas:
"Through/In" by Douglas Anderson and "Simonetta" by Larry Lipkis
Friday & Saturday, September 30 & October 1, 2022 at 8 pm
Speyer Hall at University Settlement House, 184 Eldridge St., NYC
Reviewed October 1 by Brad S. Ross

The American Chamber Opera Company provided an evening of intimate beauty Saturday, October 8 as it presented the program "Images of Her," consisting of two world premieres by composers Larry Lipkis and ACOO Founder/Music Director Douglas Anderson.

The first piece of the night was Anderson’s one act chamber opera "Through/In," which follows a nameless woman dealing with social anxiety as she prepares to attend a party. The libretto was written by the playwright and poet Andrew Joffe (a frequent collaborator of the composer) and spoke to the juxtaposition of the internal versus external perception of one’s self. The music, written with assiduous serialism, is scored dreamily for mezzo-soprano, piano, and percussion.

The drama was occasionally dithering, which is arguably appropriate given the unpredictable highs and lows of the subject matter, but doesn’t always make for the most engaging musical experience. Nevertheless, mezzo-soprano Nicole Salamon performed the solo with haunting beauty alongside her instrumental accompaniments, skillfully provided by pianist Elizabeth Rodgers and percussionist Scott Still.

An intimate and wholly unplanned Q&A with Anderson followed during intermission as venue staff attempted to silence some intrusive street music from outside (it is New York City, after all). Anderson discussed, among other things, musical definitions for the layman, some of his favorite operas, techniques he employs when composing, and future plans for the ACOC. Some members of the audience were quickly itching to move on, but I find unexpected moments like this pleasantly surprising and among the best reasons for hearing music live.

The second half of the program was devoted to the one-act chamber opera "Simonetta," composed by Larry Lipkis to a libretto by Robert Block. Considerably more expansive in scope, "Simonetta" comprises five scenes spanning a period of many (heavily fictionalized) years in the life of the famed Italian painter Sandro Botticelli as he grieves the untimely death of his model and muse Simonetta Vespucci.

The cast included tenor Steven Tompkins as Sandro Botticelli, soprano Lianne Gennaco as Simonetta Vespucci (and later her ghost), mezzo-soprano Rachel Arky as the artist’s apprentice Filippino “Pino” Lippi, and baritone Seth Gilman as the creepily sanctimonious Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. The instrumental accompaniment here consisted of string quartet, keyboard, and percussion.

Lipkis employed a far more tonal approach for "Simonetta," which swims in exquisite, if familiar, functional harmonies. Despite the relatively small ensemble, the music achieved some tenderly sorrowful lows, as during the ghostly reference to the famous eight-note "Dies Irae" plainchant melody upon Vespucci’s death, and thunderously dramatic heights, as with the show-stopping and surprisingly loud tutti crescendo at the conclusion of the third scene.

Tompkins gave a moving portrayal of the tortured artist, but, given his heavier workload, seemed to strain a little as the show progressed. Gennaco lended a fragile beauty to the doomed Vespucci and Arky brought much-needed tenderness to the Horatio-like Pino. High marks must be given to Gilman, however, whose performance and overall look as the zealous Savonarola was among the most memorable of the night.

Anderson expertly conducted both works and the orchestra, which in "Simonetta" included violinists Ellen Gronningen and Ryo Fukuda, violist Ina Litera, and cellist Matt Goeke, performed flawlessly throughout the evening. All together, this made for a fine introduction of two new chamber operas—works that will hopefully find a second life in performances to come. [BR]

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