Marble City Opera finds lyrical gold in ‘The Copper Queen’ – Knoxville Arts

BY ALAN SHERROD

Eexplore different stylistic niches in opera was the purpose of Marble City Opera since its debut in 2013. Its productions during this period range from topical works (I can not breathe) to the classics in alternative locations (Tosca at St. John’s Cathedral and La Traviata in Westwood) — world premieres of original works (shadowlight) to the contemporary classics of 20th century composers (Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and The phone). For its 2022 season, MCO once again entered new performance territory and struck opera gold with the stage premiere of The copper queenmusic by Clint Borzoni and booklet of Jean de los Santos.

The copper queen was commissioned by the Arizona Opera, but its live premiere there was cut short by Covid-19 pandemic precautions. Instead of live performances, the company opted to shoot the opera as a movie, which was released theatrically and on demand last fall. Having shown interest in the work early on, MCO became first in line for the work’s stage premiere.

For this production of The copper queen staged at the Flying Anvil Theatre, the librettist from los Santos also served as a director, bringing first-hand ideas and his original intentions to the staging. The partially inherited set has been tweaked and transformed into room 315 of the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Arizona, where only minor details separate the era of the 1910 Wild West mining town and its captive “working girl” Julia Lowell , from its 2010 parallel. track and visitor to the Addison Moore hotel. Setting up this side track, writer Moore (mezzo-soprano Sara Crigger) visits Bisbee and has checked into room 315 to get away from the sadness of her grandmother’s recent death and to investigate rumors that the room was haunted by the ghost of Julia Lowell, who met a tragic end there.

The opera’s dramatic arc oscillates between the two periods, establishing a juxtaposition between Moore and the life of the “filthy dove” Lowell (soprano Kathryn Frady). Gradually, we learn that Lowell is mostly a captive in daddy Lowell’s (Graham Anduri) lucrative operation with his services as the centerpiece. In tragic operatic fashion, Lowell endures both pleasure and pain, the latter from customers, abusive customer Peter Ackerman (baritone Daniel Spiotta) as well as his demanding and violent father. On the pleasure side, Lowell falls in love with one of her regular customers, the unfortunate Teddy (tenor David Silvano), who promises to help her escape from her captive environment. Of course, tragedy demands that their plan fail when Teddy reveals his wife is pregnant and he can’t leave her. With aching sadness, she gives him a necklace as a gift for the child and plots her own escape – an escape that is thwarted when her father arrives and murders her. The opera’s reveal picks up the story for a loop and offers resolution to what has been a delightful secret for 100 years.

Even for opera lovers, the words “contemporary opera” are not always welcome. Luckily for all, however, Borzoni’s score wanted no part of bristling thorny intervals or dissonant sour-milk harmonies. The work is both melodic and complex, melodious and rich, attractive and dramatically lush, dispelling the idea that contemporary opera should be a stranger in a foreign land.

Marble City Opera’s ‘The Copper Queen’ – (L) Daniel Spiotta; (R) Graham Anduri

Vocally and dramatically, it was a strong and remarkable cast. Julia is a plum role for Kathryn Frady, who has both the lyrical sweetness to soothe and the dramatic power capable of knocking the socks off. Sara Crigger gave her Addison Moore a lovely, charming clarity that was a necessary counterpart to Julia. Graham Anduri sang two roles, both Papa Lowell and hotel receptionist Mr. Floyd, making the similarities and differences between the characters a neat dramatic hook.

Marble City Opera’s “The Copper Queen” – (L) David Silvano, (R) Kathryn Frady

Tenor David Silvano brought a delightfully romantic lyrical side to Teddy, while baritone Daniel Spiotta took on Ackerman’s villainous role in an equally impressive, yet dark and ominous place. Bass-baritone Jacob Lay, as Julia’s client Sugar Dog, opened his ears with an incredibly smooth delivery. The 17-member orchestra, squeezed into one of the theater’s entrance aisles, was led by music director Christy Lee.

In the past, although Marble City Opera has grudgingly endured the inability to properly light its productions in the unusual alternative venues it selects, this was not the case this time around. De los Santos and his lighting designer, Joshua Mullady, created a minimal, yet spectacularly successful environment in the space of the Flying Anvil Theater – clarity of white light for the 2010 stages and richly muted reds and golds and spotted for vintage scenes. A vehicle such as this formidable production of The copper queen and its brooding tragedy really needs that kind of attention.


Marble City Opera House: The copper queen
Music by Clint Borzoni; libretto by John de los Santos

Flying Anvil Theatre, 1300 Rocky Hill Road
Thursday to Saturday June 2-4, 2022, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information

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