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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 29.0° F  Overcast
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MUSIC

Singing specters haunt Overture Center in Fresco Opera Theatre's Paranormal Playhouse

What angelic voices these ghosts had.
Credit:Max Wendt
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Even if you don't believe in hauntings, Paranormal Playhouse by Fresco Opera Theatre made a pretty convincing case over the weekend that spirits of operas past have overrun the Overture Center's Playhouse, singing their hearts out to audiences who cannot hear them.

But don't worry. Fresco also has a ghost-busting unit called A.R.I.A. (Apparition Removal Investigation Association) that finds these spirits and helps them cross over to the light.

Since its inception in 2010, Fresco has stitched together arias from a variety of operas to form fresh, sassy plots with avant-garde flair. From the resounding applause the audience gave Paranormal Playhouse, the approach is working marvelously.

Set designer Mike Gilmore created an appropriately creepy atmosphere, hanging pieces of tattered fabric from the ceiling and balcony rails. Old ladders, scaffolds and a dark staircase leading to nowhere gave the Playhouse the look of a theater in vacant disarray. Lighting designer Jon Penisten flooded the stage with icy blue lighting to enhance the pallor of the ghostly cast.

And what angelic voices these ghosts had. A cast of 15 actors sang some of the loveliest arias in opera history. Rachel Eve Holmes (the Wailing Woman) gave the most surreal performance when she sang a lovely Bellini aria while hanging from the rafter that she hung herself from before she became a spirit.

George Abbott (Freddy, the Cameraman) switched from his muscular tenor voice to a delicate countertenor with uncanny ease. He and soprano Rachel Edie Warrick (the Shadow), sang a poignant duet from Handel's Giulio Cesare. Melanie Cain (the Mother Spirit) and Caitlin Cisler (the Child Ghost) brought a new meaning to tenderness in Bellini's aria, "Mira, o Norma."

Full immersion in an acting role is rare, but I thought Saira Frank (Bloody Bonny), Mark Craig (the Maestro) and Diana Kelly Eiler (the Psychic) were exemplary. I always enjoy J. Adam Shelton's strong tenor and gentle stage presence, but he would have been less of a Leading Man Ghost last night without his Leading Lady Ghost, Nancy Anne Davis. And you never would have thought the A.R.I.A. ghost busters could sing and act so well.

As is common in contemporary operatic production, this was a mixed media presentation with video and computer-generated sound. The whole ensemble was deftly held together by cellist Michael Allen, violist Marie Pauls, violinist Laura Mericle and pianist Jess Salek, who also conducted. Hats off to makeup artist Lyn Marie Neuenfeldt for a ghoulishly great job, too.

Hearing works of diverse composers side by side in one show is unusual and invigorating: Puccini next to Mozart, Rachmaninoff next to Handel, and Britten next to Wagner. The cast garnered a wide array of emotions from the audience. In an almost-full house, there were tears, laughs and gasps.

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