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Review: Portland Stage Presents New Chamber Opera About Psychoanalysis Pioneer: SABINA


Review: Portland Stage Presents New Chamber Opera About Psychoanalysis Pioneer: SABINA

Portland Stage closes its 2021-2022 season with a new play with music that is really a chamber opera, SABINA, about the pioneer in psychoanalysis, the muse and lover of Carl Jung and colleague of Sigmund Freud, Sabina Spielrein. Sabina's story from Jung's catatonic patient to medical student and respected doctor in the turbulent years leading up to WWII is a fascinating one, filled with history and hope.

The two-hour work has a strong book/libretto by Willy Holtzman that skillfully pairs down Sabina's eventful life to a well-selected series of important moments and keeps the audience engaged with the arc of her journey and her association with two of the most original and brilliant minds of the day. Using five characters, with actors occasionally doubling as the "Shadows/Voices" in Sabina's mind, Holtzman tells a compelling story about a woman whose accomplishments deserve to be rescued from obscurity.

Louise Beach provides the modernist score with dark, sometimes chromatic harmonies that suit the shadowy world of the asylum and of the inner psyche well, but there is a sameness about the music that does not often rise to memorable moments of song. Similarly Darrah Cloud's lyrics are often monochromatic and banal. One longs for a gripping, rousing, or heart wrenching musical moment to stop the show in best musical or operatic fashion, but while there are tender, elegant, and dramatic instants, nothing quite reaches that unforgettable pitch. Music Director Bradley Vieth, on piano/keyboards, leads the accomplished chamber orchestra of six, using the strings, and reeds to maximum effect.

Anita Stewart creates the gray-toned unit set - with spare pieces of furniture and props - which serves primarily for the asylum and suggests other landscapes of the mind and reality. The back wall scrim which uses irised panels that open and close framing characters is an effective and economical device, and the entire look suggests the grim and nebulous world of the pre-WWII asylum. Christopher Akerlind's lighting adds to the sense of chiaroscuro as characters grapple with issues of waking and dreaming. Fabian Fidel Aguilar provides the early 20th century costumes, adhering to a largely neutral palette with dashes of white for the medical coats and to elegant pastel evening wear for the women. Charles Coes creates an excellent sound balance between orchestra, tucked in the stage left corner of the auditorium, and the gracefully miced singers.

Danilo Gambini and Daniella Topol co-direc,t keeping the pace taut, the narrative seamless, and finding special moments of chemistry between characters. Philip Stoddard makes an appealing Carl Jung both vocally and dramatically. His well-trained lyric baritone is notable for its pleasing timbre and refined musicianship. And he portrays the young Dr. Jung as both an ambitious clinician and a warm human being. Bruce Sabath makes for a feisty, sometimes funny, narcissistic Dr. Freud, and their cleverly staged duet, "Take the Picture" is a highlight. Jason Michael Evans brings dramatic authority, vocal ease, and the ability to add dimension to the supporting character of Ludwig Binswanger. Sarah Anne Fernandez is both a tender and determined Emma Jung, who displays a strong vocal presence, especially in her solo, "Stepping into the Light." As the protagonist, Sabina Spielrein, Stephanie Machado gives a committed, convincing performance of the heroine's turbulent journey from mental illness to cure to prominence as a doctor helping others. Gifted with what should be the most rousing vocal moments in the piece - "Waking to Life," "No Cure for Love," "Letter from Rostov" she belts them out with emotional energy but with somewhat strained vocalism.Review: Portland Stage Presents New Chamber Opera About Psychoanalysis Pioneer: SABINA

SABINA is an ambitious way to close Portland Stage's regular season. It is a complex and worthy new work with a story that deserves to be heard. Like its central character, SABINA makes a fitting conclusion to a season that has very much been meeting and overcoming challenges.

SABINA runs at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME from May 18-June 5 207-774-0465

Photos credit: Portland Stage Mical Huston, photographer

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