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Memories haunt Nathan Mattingly (far right) in Fort Worth Opera’s Voir Dire.

Day-to-day court proceedings rarely rise to sitcom levels of entertainment, but that hasn’t diminished our collective curiosity of the criminal justice system. Voir Dire, which recently had its world premiere as part of this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, makes use of documented court cases for its libretto. While the legal proceedings offer more than enough material for a contemporary opera, composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka go beyond the sensational headlines to delve into the inner workings of our system of justice. It’s an unsettling and riveting depiction, with conflicted judges, remorseless criminals, and culpable victims.

The opera’s staging at McDavid Studio is sparse. A judge’s bench plastered with large white legal documents forms the backdrop. Behind the pulpit sits a small chamber orchestra. Voir Dire opens with the entrance of Judge Dodsworth (bass-baritone Nathan Mattingly), who appears tormented as he rumbles, “It’s time to end it.” I found Dodsworth to be the most engaging character throughout the 90-minute performance. As criminals, lawyers, and victims (performed by mezzo-soprano Anna Laurenzo, baritone Trevor Martin, soprano Christina Pecce, and tenor Andrew Surrena) enter and leave the stage, Dodsworth remains the one constant. When violent crimes are reenacted, he is omnipresent, observing and empathetically reacting to everything he sees.

Tying together the work is the case of 16-year-old Jeffrey Schumacher, who is accused early on of murdering his mother (Pecce). Schumacher’s character is not covered by a performer and therefore remains something of an enigma throughout the work. The boy’s story develops throughout the opera via flashbacks to his childhood and later through the ensuing court proceedings. 

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Peterson and Zencka mercifully pepper Voir Dire with lighter and often hilarious scenes, including a civil court battle between two sisters-in-law, both named Cathy, who are fighting for custody of a macaw. The comedic absurdity rises to a fevered pitch as the bird (performed by Martin) enters the courtroom. The sisters vie for the bird’s affection as everyone in the courtroom (including the tropical pet) slowly begins dancing to Cuban-inspired songs. 

Peterson proves to be an adept composer, making full use of the dozen or so musicians to full timbral effect. Depending on the scene, strains of dissonant violin passages, whimsical percussive effects, beatnik jazz trios, or Latin dance tunes envelope the masterful singing of the actors.

Midway through the opera, Martin’s depiction of a child pornography-addicted professor is long-winded but one of the most powerful performances, vocally speaking. The baritone’s austere, resonant voice outshines the pitiful character he portrays. Overall, Mattingly steals the show through brilliant acting and sheer force of character, although the vocal range of some of his lines is too low to be decipherable. 

As Voir Dire draws to a close, the main characters (Jeffrey’s mother, a rapist, the porn professor, and a female assault victim) gather around Dodsworth. By now, the judge’s character is fully developed. Dodsworth addresses each character directly, consoling victims and chastising perpetrators. “I am just a man who knows the law,” he sings as they draw closer. At one point in the closing scene, the singers take turns in a vocalise, wordlessly trading a lilting, descending melody that almost certainly depicts their shared experience in the courtroom. Peterson saves some of his best material for the heart-wrenching finale. 

Contemporary opera is something of a free-for-all these days with a premium put on shock value. What sets Voir Dire apart in the crowded field of modern opera is its transcendence of the well-worn trope of the vulgar and obscene. The crimes are unsettling to watch, but they are simply a point of departure to delve into complex notions of law, justice, and the very efficacy of our legal system.

Voir Dire

Thru May 6 at McDavid Studio, 301 E 5th St, FW. $75. 877-396-7372.

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