nytheatre.com review by Dianna Tucker Baritot
May 23, 2007
Edward Ficklin, composer, lyricist, and director of Looking Back, claims in his program bio that he "shyly courts the limelight." That may be so, but his work takes center stage in this operatic trilogy. For those of you wary of modern classical composition, fear not. 21st century composers have been exposed to everything from Bach to the Bee Gees, and have evolved beyond last century's atonal experimentalists. Ficklin's music is frequently melodic, but dissonant when appropriate. His style is eclectic, peppered with subtle nods to romantic/baroque composition and modern jazz. His lyrics comprise freeform poetry and repeated phrases, effectively punctuated with occasional spoken text.
The three separate stories all follow a theme of love and loss. No wheels are being reinvented, and this familiarity helps to balance the abstraction of the first two tales. The first opera, Anniversary, is barely more than a one-woman introspective. As described in the program: "Claire waits at the cafe where, a year ago, she first met Michael. In a moment of passion they made a vow to reunite there every year, regardless of what might happen between them." The second opera, The Painter, is more character-heavy, involving all four singers, but centers around the painter himself, who has been driven mad with guilt over the untimely death of his wife; most of the voices we hear are apparently in the painter's head. This is the least clearly rendered story of the trilogy, and I was glad to have read the program notes before watching. The third piece, Looking Back, introduces genuine character interaction, dialogue, and a complete story arc: "Charley and Hugo have the perfect life, until Michael, the dead ex-boyfriend pays a surprise visit after a botched séance led by an inebriated medium." Of the three, it was my favorite. Death, drunkenness, Noel Coward references—what's not to love?
Four singers carry the hour. Ficklin's use of a countertenor is daring, but effective. Robert Fertitta performs with seasoned professionalism, though his songs dance perilously close to the bottom of his falsetto range. He sounds loveliest in his uppermost register, and is as creepy as the Master of the Dance in The Painter as he is charmingly impish as Michael in Looking Back. Joshua Mochel aptly portrays the title role in The Painter, his throated tenor tone anguished in his rants, then quiet in moments of resignation as darkness takes him over. Dennis Blackwell's warm bass provides a hearty anchor for the three high voices, and he lends tenderness to his roles as blind date (Michael, Anniversary), best friend (The Painter), and faithful mate (Charley, Looking Back). Rachel Carter's voice is so pure and rich that I found the corners of my mouth curling into a witless smile whenever she sang. She transitions seamlessly from lonely date (Claire, Anniversary), to ghostly memory (The Painter), to drunken medium (Looking Back). The four voices blend beautifully in Ficklin's harmonies; success of the group numbers is undoubtedly due to the musical direction of Jennifer Peterson, who also accompanies and conducts the entire performance.
Although the show is, essentially, a concert version of the operas, Ficklin's staging could have been more dynamic. It's as difficult for a singer to perform a five-minute aria standing in one spot as it is for the audience to watch it. Boredom is averted, however, thanks to Kamala Sankaram's haunting film images being projected upstage throughout all three tales, providing an eerie moving backdrop.
I enjoyed the entire production more than I thought I would, and I am very interested to see what Ficklin would do for a full-length production; he is a talent to be watched.