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Review: WRITTEN IN STONE at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater

A new opera by Washington National Opera

Review: WRITTEN IN STONE at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater

The Washington National Opera has gathered a company of first rate singers for a portmanteau of four, one-act operas called Written in Stone. Unfortunately, their fine skills and exceptional voices cannot make silk purses out of scores, libretti, and orchestrations that evade aesthetics, emphasize negatives, and ignore the connection implicit in musical theatre between the notes and the text. This world première requires an orchestra to seem to be playing a piece of music that is not the same piece of music as the singers are singing. The last time this many groups of unfriendly instruments had a gig in a first run house was probably PDQ Bach's last show in Carnegie Hall. Gesamtkunstwerk this isn't, and it lasts for two and a half hours.

The declared premise of the commissioned pieces is to produce work that results from four pairs of composers and librettists thinking about how Washington, DC's monuments "speak to them." Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran's curtain raiser, Chantal, presents its title character apparently at her workplace with her surveyor's theodolite declaring, first, that "a monument is an answer" and then that "a monument is a question." Cryptic, but possible and intriguing; however, Chantal does not develop the idea much before the little piece ends. But in the next three one-acts, apparently, the Carrara marble Portrait Monument, the American marble Supreme Court building, and the black granite Vietnam Veterans Memorial inspire the writers on each creative team to insult and undermine characters in the mini-operas. The chosen monuments do not memorialize proven villains like the ones that New Orleans, Santa Fe, Sitka, Portland (OR), Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Richmond have recently moved from prominent view. Rather, the Portrait Monument of three female suffragists, the Court, and the masterful monument to 58,000 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War mark in stone events and processes that yield more progress for the United States than reversion. Yet the creative teams of Written in Stone, see a series of half empty glasses rather than questions or answers, and they turn their negative thinking on some of the characters in their operas.

For example, in Rise by Kamala Sankaram and A.M. Homes, a character who seems to be based on the late Democratic congresswoman Lindy Boggs drones on about what a wonderful person she is for demanding a women's rest room in the Capitol offices rather than swiftly letting an ever-more physically miserable, lost Girl Scout who has to urinate relieve herself in said room. No connection to the Portrait Monument gets made, but shade is casually cast on Boggs' reputation. And in it all falls down by Carlos Simon and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a preacher who expects to pass his congregation on to his son publicly insults him when the young man, after quoting Corinthians in his first sermon (". . . and the greatest of these is love") comes out. "Not in this church," says his father who then repeats "over my dead body" with oppressive frequency followed by the son's repetition of "I am a man" as if merely repeating slogans and clichés can effect change. Such melodramatization belittles both characters and certainly offers nothing enlightening to the audience. Before the traumatic scene can develop, the opera inexplicably jump cuts from the church to the front of the Supreme Court where the text of its decision favoring gay marriage is read aloud. The scene ends when the father refuses to shake his son's hand.

The most depressing examples of this penchant for degrading characters take place in the fourth piece, The Rift by Huang Ruo and Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. Their telling of Maya Lin's designing of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial refers to but never shows its stark, angular siting, the stone embedded in a hill. Instead, there's a scene in which the ostensible judges of the design contest (which. Lin. won.) make fun of and laugh at her sketches. This is followed by a read out of many of the racist abuses which targeted Lin in the early 1980s when the memorial was being built. People indeed used ethnic slurs against Lin and worse, and such racism has evolved today into stabbings in the subways and shootings in the nail salons. But it is baffling that the memorial itself, one of the simplest and purest on the planet, "speaks" to Hwang of the value of recalling what Lin was subjected to rather than its goal to keep the names of the dead in the Vietnam war in memory. No connection is made between the abuse Lin endured and the names of the soldiers on the wall, though The Rift does stray from that topic as well in a section expressing regret that the deaths of the South Vietnamese soldiers are not included. To add more bafflement to what Maya Lin's memorial has written in stone, there is yet another element that also doesn't connect to the memorial: the hurt feelings of Robert McNamara. About 30% of The Rift presents the late Secretary of Defense, whose fog of war exacerbated that war, as having earned an audience's sympathy because his son hung Old Glory in his room and some reporters made him uncomfortable with their questions. The presence of and section depicting McNamara serves at the very least as a trigger alert for Vietnam vets who really deserve to be allowed not to have to think about nor empathize with one of the architects of the war in which they served. And it, too, is a baffling element which seems to want to diminish Maya Lin's achievement in favor of McNamara's guilty conscience. The cumulative suggestion of the libretti of Written in Stone is that such monuments lack value and purpose.

S. Katy Tucker's excellent projections map for the viewers the stone monuments of the title. The Supreme Court and the Vietnam Memorial are familiar, but the Portrait Monument, a tribute to Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Rise, may be less well known. So Tucker's views of it from several angles should make audiences want to head over to the Capitol to view the statue in situ. The costume highlight of the whole production is the passel of great hats for the chorus of church ladies in it all falls down. (Costume Designer, Dede Ayité) WNO's choice of two world class pros, James Robinson the director and Robert Spano the conductor, gave the singers a much needed and deserved support system. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra sounded muffled because they were inexplicably placed upstage, out of sight behind two, sound-altering backdrops. When their microphones were occasionally turned up, they sounded flattened as well as muffled. When the chorus was amplified, they were made to sound tinny. None of the musicians in this production actually require artificial amplification--baffling.

Alfred Walker's huge bass/baritone voice gave depth, weight, and significance to Mtchll, the preacher in it all falls down (baffled by the punctuation and spelling? I feel you; and I can't imagine how it contributes to the opera). For all its heft, Walker's voice manages flexibility as well (Sarastro, please). Christian Mark Gibbs brought a relaxed tenor sound to Mtchll's son and some serious acting chops to The Rift. His depiction of an anguished Vietnam War veteran who finally starts to heal when he visits the wall represents the thousands of men and women for whom Maya Lin's work has been priceless. (Gibbs: Cavaradossi in training) Sopranos Vanessa Becerra and Danielle Talamentes play a daughter and her mother in Rise. Becerra navigates the twists and turns in the book as she changes from lost Girl Scout to genuinely appreciative tourist with her bright, clear sound--perfect for Donizetti and Mozart (Queen of the Night in training). Talamentes brings maturity to the role of her mom who wants a better life for her daughter in America than she had in her youth in Mexico (Verdi, please, the Requiem included).

J'nai Bridges. Norman Maine tries to use mere words to explain her talent to Esther Blodgett after he hears her sing "The Man that Got Away" in A Star is Born, but "little jabs of pleasure" and "little something extra" can't capture the size of such a gift. Copy that, regarding J'nai Bridges, a mezzo-soprano whose abilities are as far from "little" as Vietnam is from Pluto. The voice suggests Marilyn Horne at the bottom and Leontyne Price at the top, but it is unique, and, like all inimitable voices, something of a magnificent room in a large and perfect building. Cast in two roles in Written in Stone, Bridges sings Officer Victoria Wilson a member of the Capitol Police Department in Rise and the wife of the preacher in it all falls down. Bridges' skill as an actor gives the mother of a gay son more dimension than the opera itself does. Her 2019 Met Opera debut was as Aknaten's wife, Nefertiti, in Philip Glass' opera. Neither snow nor sleet nor pandemic nor dark of night will ultimately prevent her Carmen from taking place. THAT is written in stone.

Tickets for Written in Stone, which runs through March 25 in English with surtitles, are available at or by calling 202.467.4600.

The Opera House Orchestra and the WNO chorus began opening night's performance with a moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem.

(Photo by Scott Suchman)

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