Los Angeles Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT)

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by Tony Frankel on June 12, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

WHAT A DOG

The term “Dog Days” refers to the hottest period of the year, the sultry part of summer when Sirius, the Dog Star, rises in unison with the sun. It’s a time marked by sluggishness. Opera is going through its own dog days in which the majority of new works I’ve seen are frustratingly inaccessible, except perhaps to the grant-generating and avant-garde crowd. Instead of reinventing opera, most composers stick with the same non-melodic minimalist recitative while librettists get more wrapped up in poeticism (such as repeating phrases for unfathomable reasons) than storytelling.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Consider Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities, Todd Machover’s Death and the Powers, Anne LeBaron’s Crescent City, or Lee Holdridge’s Dulce Rosa: each contains that confounding new style of vocal lines which sound like someone just hurled notes onto the staff and let them land where they may, yet the orchestrations are infinitely inventive and fascinating. Still, these operas, which I would be hard-pressed to pop into my CD player, keep popping up in the most extraordinary productions.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Dog Days, the highly anticipated new opera that opened in a west coast premiere at REDCAT last night, fits snugly alongside these other operas. Even with marvelous production values and slathers of talent on board, composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek (working off of Judy Budnitz’ short story) offer no more than another experiment in the attempt to create something new. And whether or not some may hold this as a successful experiment in stretching boundaries, I still feel as though I am staring at the petri dish of opera waiting for something to grow.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Although it is not clear why or how they got there, a family tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Outside the door of their rotting home (palpable scenic and video design by Jim Findlay) is a man dressed in a ragtag dog suit living off of neighborhood scraps (a non-singing role played by John Kelly). The father (a powerful James Bobick, lacking diction) and mother (a brave Marnie Breckenridge) futilely attempt to keep their clan together—their roles as provider and comforter are challenged in this barebones existence.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Sad, bleak, overwrought, unapproachable, creepy, confusing, insistent, intriguing, powerful, ponderous, primal and perplexing, it’s as if Benjamin Britten, Adam Guettel, and Sam Shepard were asked to turn a 22-minute Twilight Zone episode into a 140-minute opera.

Peter Tantsits (Pat) and Michael Marcotte (Elliott) in a scene from DOG DAYS, presented by LA Opera at REDCAT.

If the creators’ intention was to have us be as uncomfortable and edgy as this trapped family is, than it’s a job well done. The entire project works best when the opera is infused with theatricality and rock-like recitative. Scenes include: The family sitting down to eat pickled food and praying beforehand, hardly belying a prickly undertow (a wooden box of rations dropped from an army helicopter is a terrifically startling event); one son (Peter Tantsits) watching with fascination as his foul-mouthed brother (Michael Marcotte) masturbates to tattered Playboy magazines; and the teenage daughter (a ferocious performance by Lauren Worsham) staring at herself in the mirror, realizing how beautiful she has become as a result of starvation.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Yet even with Robert Woodruff’s inventive staging, this latter aria “Mirror, Mirror”—in which an implanted camera beams a close-up video projection of the girl’s face above the proceedings (engineered by Garth MacAleavey)—goes on for far, far too long. When you add to that the sometimes unintelligible lyrics (there are no supertitles—and they’re badly needed), a dire scenario, and nonexistent melodies, the first act was mildly soporific and patrons could be seen violently shifting in their seats.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

The second act is more exciting as an army captain and a soldier arrive on the scene, followed by a brutal and shocking denouement, but the journey here can only be recommended for the game cast, delicious theatricality and the endlessly enthralling orchestrations, played with perfection by the chamber ensemble Newspeak, brilliantly led by music director Alan Pierson.

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

photos by Greg Grudt / Matthew Imaging

Opera Review: DOG DAYS (LA Opera Off Grand at REDCAT in Los Angeles)

Dog Days
LA Opera and Beth Morrison Projects
REDCAT, 631 West 2nd St (under Disney Hall)
ends on June 15, 2015
for tickets, call 213.972.8001 or visit www.LAOpera.org

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