BWW Review: PATIENCE & SARAH Shines Light on Women in Love in 19th-Century New England
PATIENCE & SARAH--at least in the production of this chamber opera seen this past week at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village, as part of the New York Opera Fest and 18 years after its premiere at Lincoln Center Festival--is a beautiful but somewhat lopsided affair. While it tells of the love shared by the women of the title, despite the objections and confusion of their families--Patience is educated, wealthy and a painter, Sarah's a poor, illiterate farmer--it seems really to be the story of Sarah.
Her character is simply better conceived, her arc more clearly defined. She's the one who knows her mind, who's strong enough to take off on her own when she discovers Patience is too timid to go forward with their relationship and the one who comes back to claim the woman she loves.
Luckily, the role was put in the hands, and voice, of French mezzo Elsa Queron, under the fluid direction of Douglas Moser, designed and lit by Andrew Rubenoff, with costumes by Nina M. Paradiz. From the moment she came on stage, Queron was the center of intimate universe created by composer Paula M. Kimper and libretto by Wende Persons. Her understated yet charismatic performance and clear, strong voice were the rock that held the performance together, as Sarah grew as a person.
Her interchanges with the sturdy Canadian soprano, Nadia Petrella as Patience, were so warm and tender that it was almost as if we were eavesdropping on private conversations meant only for them. Yet, despite, plenty of heart-felt, soaring music, Patience didn't come to life for me the way Sarah did, which I believe was a problem in a role that felt underwritten--certainly compared to that of her partner--and, perhaps, from the interpretation of Petrella.
This was most clear in Act II, during which Patience did not appear at all. When she could not bring herself to go off with Sarah to make a life for themselves, Sarah made the decision to pioneer her way in the world on her own, dressed as a boy named Sam. But her road took an unexpected turn, when she did not take to farming--the only life she had known--but as the apprentice to "Parson" Daniel Peel, an itinerant bookseller, charmingly and strongly portrayed by baritone Michael Kelly.
He took an immediate interest in her, offering her food, teaching her to read, allowing her to make a living--and encouraging her to live her dreams. (Of course, his interest is not completely altruistic, as he is drawn to "Sam," having mistaken her sexuality.) Their interplay is well drawn and moving, and musically, they played off each other in a beautifully modulated, expressive way-even when she had to reject his advances.
The libretto is strongest in Act III, when Sarah returned home to her family's farm and decided to become a real pioneer: in claiming the woman she loved. While the denouement may have been obvious given the nature of the story, it nonetheless felt real and true, both musically and dramatically, as they went off together, as women who knew what they had to do.
As for the score, performed by Kimper's own "Paula Kimper Ensemble" under the composer's baton, with its simplicity and use of the folk idiom, doesn't try to be anything it isn't--no big arias, no overly heightened Straussian emotions. I found much of it quite beautiful in its straightforwardness, particularly in the ensemble writing--Kimper's duets, including the ending, seem her forte. I might have wished for more musical differentiation among the characters, however, and perhaps more of the edge and dissonance that she wrote for Sarah's father, Pa Dowling, ably sung by Duncan Hartman.
The rest of the roles were well cast as well. Tenor Chad Kranak, as Patience's well-meaning but weak brother Edward was solid and sang smoothly, while mezzo Jessica Lauren did very well in the double role of Patience's sister-in-law (where the two shared a lovely duet) and Sarah's mother. Soprano Bryn Holdsworth sang beautifully in the dramatically unfocused role of Sarah's sister Rachel.
In the end, it's impossible to separate the work, developed through American Opera Projects, from its ground-breaking place in bringing a lesbian--a gay--relationship to the operatic repertoire. No matter what reservations I may have about the piece, its story of two women, who are eventually brave enough to live their lives together as they want, is easy to relate to, and hard to forget.