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Review: Elvis Costello's THE JULIET LETTERS Revived by Urban Arias

Review: Elvis Costello's THE JULIET LETTERS Revived by Urban Arias

Running a small opera company requires innovation enough, but Washington's Urban Arias goes further, by commissioning new works, or finding pieces that are little known or rarely performed and infusing them with reliable company talent that can electrify their purposely small audiences.

They're doing that now by closing their latest season with a performance of Elvis Costello's "The Juliet Letters," the song cycle he composed and performed with the Brodsky Quartet for a 1993 release. Costello and the quartet performed it together on a short tour at the time; it's been presented with multiple singers in operatic concert performances only a couple of times since.

For their production, playing only four dates at Signature Theatre this weekend, the individual songs are split between and among three accomplished singers, who can suit their range, style and approach to the individual songs.

The inspiration of the work was a news item about a professor in Verona who took it upon himself to receive (and answer) letters that arrived there addressed to Juliet Capulet, the doomed, fictional and dead lover in Shakespeare's best known tragedy.

That idea is reflected in "The Juliet Letters," but also inspired an array of songs, each delivered in the form of a letter, taken from the dead letter office and given new life with voice and strings.

One is a suicide note; another a piece of junk mail. There's a divorce decree, hate mail and love notes (Had it been composed a few years later, perhaps it would have included text messages and Facebook posts).

Other than the two female voices adding their coloration and dramatic tone, Urban Arias' presentation differs necessarily because the four members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra on stage and conducted by company founder Robert Wood are not exactly the world-reknown Brodskys, whose recording with Costello is crisp, driving and equal to the singer.

Here, they are dependable backing to the singers whose coaxing into dramatic scenarios, poses and dance for each song is due to director Cara Gabriel, for whom the piece is her first opera-like production.

She wisely avoids trying to tie it all together, but rather like a cabaret (for which the Signature blackbox is set up with tables and candles), she creates brief encounters among the characters for the 17 songs (to which are added three brief instrumentals).

Two of the three singers are also in rock bands, so while they stick largely to their training, they also know when a song is more suited to straight ahead pop, adjusting accordingly.

Melissa Wimbish is the most striking of the trio for her immense orange mane that often seems a character herself. With a voice as versatile as her various personas, from maid to raging knife wielder in "Swine." Vocal master's candidate Alyssa Leigh Burrs also has moments to show off the heights of her training, but also flesh out characters, such as the old lady whose will is being rewritten by scheming offspring in "I Almost Had a Weakness."

Dashing Robert Wesley Mason has a lot to do, representing every male voice in the song cycle, but adjusts accordingly and with authority.

"The Juliet Letters" was written as a true collaboration, with many lyrics from the quartet added to those by the prolific songwriter. But a lot of Costello's biting wit and sly wordplay came out, as did some of his pop instincts. The theme song to a legal firm, "Jacksons, Monk and Lowe" bounced like a bouncy 45 hit; the melody of the closing "The Birds Will Be Singing" indelible in its memorable chorus that begins, "Banish all dismay, extinguish every sorrow."

The work is in excellent hands in the production. Director Gabriel coaxes some humor out of what some might expect to be a too-dour classical approach. She ties the evening together with some letters that are attached, fly away and return at the end of the night, via oversized clothespins.

Jason Arnold's stage design is one of colorful shards behind them, meant to evince a shattered heart or the torn pieces of letters that keep getting ripped up during the hour-long production.

And costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis has her own tricks, with pieces of the three costumes disappearing as the performance went on; the most notable was Mason losing each of his sleeves before it was over.

Costello's classical foray may have been a singular experiment that he hadn't repeated to this degree in his long career. But Urban Arias' delightful and loving presentation of it gives his fans a rare chance to see it performed live, while allowing a wider audience to be introduced to its many charms for the first time.

Running time: One hour, with a talkback following.

Photo credit: Alyssa Leigh Burrs, Robert Wesley Mason and Melissa Wimbish. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

"The Juliet Letters" continues through July 14 at The ARK at Signature Theatre,

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From This Author - Roger Catlin