Tom Strini
Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s “26”

Old songs, new twists

By - May 14th, 2010 11:03 pm
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Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 26 is based on this anthology.

A Monteverdi aria with ukulele accompaniment was not on my list of things to hear before I die, but I heard it Friday night and I’m glad I did.

It was part of 26, an unusual sort of revue staged by Milwaukee Opera Theatre at Danceworks. Mezzo Jill Anna, tenor Nathan Wesselowski and dancer-choreographer Kelly Anderson wove  26 Italian songs and arias that every student singer is assigned into a story of love, conflict and resolution. They kept it simple: Ponasik and Wesselowski are a happy couple; Anderson is their friend. Anderson and Wesselowski have an affair. Angst ensues. Death for all seems imminent, but then… well, see the show and find out.

The collection contains songs that are ardent, tragic and comic. The creative trio put them together with great sophistication; the players nimbly negotiate the fine line between operatic passion and comic irony. They drive home the big, emotional moments with great intensity, then they pull the rug from under you. You can’t help but laugh, at yourself as well as at the characters’ shenanigans.

This bare-bones production, staged in the little black box at Danceworks, comprises a couple of chairs, a rope a ladder, a picnic blanket. Jack Forbes Wilson is in plain sight at the piano and the electronic keyboard that stands in for harpsichord in the Baroque numbers. Silent-movie style intercards, projected onto a drape hanging from the piano, indicate the meanings of the Italian songs. The cards occasionally clarify the action and once or twice deliver a punchline.

The acting style, too, recalls silent movie style, but without the excessive mugging (which you don’t need when you have these songs). The large-scale gestures blossom into dance. Ponasik and Wesselowski are strong actors. They move exceptionally well and can sing well while moving. Wesselowski has a fine weighty tenor that dips into the baritone range. Ponasik sang a little tentatively at first and had some pitch issues, then opened up about a third of the way in and was glorious for the duration.

Anderson gave them interesting material that made them look good and that fit in with the extraordinary movement she assigned herself. Anderson sang credibly when called upon to join in a duet and a couple of trios, arranged from the solo songs by Wesselowski.

The highlight of the piece and its most touching passage is a solo dance, to a piano arrangement of one of the songs. Anderson calmly removes her dress to reveal a lacy red slip. Her love and understanding of the betrayal that goes with that love mingle as her limbs bloom out from her core in the most beautiful sinuous way. Then everything withdraws into the core, she bends and crumples to her knees, folds in on herself, and shakes her head in shame and regret. This cycle occurs again and again in inventive variations. At the end, she gathers herself, puts on her dress, and goes off to consummate her love.

Guilt and sex. That’s Italian. That’s opera, even if you dance it.

26 will repeat at Danceworks, 1661 N. Water Street, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15-16. Tickets are $25 and $20, $15 for students and seniors. Get them in advance; Friday’s show was sold out and a hit. Call the Danceworks box office, 414-277-8480 ext 6025.

Click here to read an interview with the creative trio.

Categories: Classical, Dance

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