Fort Worth audiences have come to expect contemporary opera selections as an almost accepted part of the company’s annual music festival. They’ve also come to expect the unexpected, thanks to recently departed general director Darren Woods. This year’s nod to works by living composers includes three 15-minute selections that explore the foibles and merits of that most sacred of unions — marriage.
Fort Worth Opera Artistic Director Joe Illick was the emcee and accompanist for Brief Encounters. The lecture hall at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden provided an intimate space with solid acoustics.
“I’m responsible for this concoction,” Illick said shortly before the concert. “All these works represent different stages of relationships.”
Avow, by composer and librettist Mark Adamo, was uproariously funny and packed an impressive amount of drama into a quarter of an hour. The unnamed bride (mezzo-soprano Kate Tombaugh) was having second thoughts on marriage. The bride’s mother (soprano Maren Weinberger) sat in a chair, separating the fiancé from her husband-to-be (baritone Samuel Schultz). Awkward smiles painted an uneasy picture.
“People do this all the time,” the couple sang before devolving into fantasized excuses — criminal inclinations and medical maladies — for why they are not quite ready to tie the knot.
Schultz delivered the bulk of the comedic moments by pantomiming the feelings of pre-wedding jitters with deadpan facial expressions. He also sang a touching interlude that reflected on his conflicted feelings toward his deceased father (bass Zachary James). The mood turned toward tenderness as Tombaugh exquisitely rendered an aria on why love might be worth the risk. Throughout the work, sparse piano accompaniments filled dramatic voids and added emotional levity when needed. In short turn, the two wed only to have the overbearing mother quip, “There’s a reception afterward.”
The concert took a tepidly dark turn with Again, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist David Stearns. If the goal was to present a “dark chapter,” as Illick said in his introduction, it fell short, though. The piece, accompanied with veiled excerpts from I Love Lucy, was a poignant commentary on the troubled marriage of Lucille Ball (Weinberger) and Desi Arnaz (tenor Javier Abreu), but the scenes of domestic abuse on the part of Abreu were softened by the comedic undertones of the sitcom setting.
The performances ended with the strongest work, Feel the Tango,by composer Illick and libressist Susan Westfall. A pair of middle-aged empty nesters, Joe (Schultz) and Sandy (Weinberger), entered a Latin-themed restaurant amid Tango-esque piano rhythms. Their waiter Carlos (Abreu) overzealously enticed them with the specials of the day. As Carlos proceeded to flirt with Sandy, she flushed and twirled her hair.
“We’ll just have the usual,” Joe retorted. “A water for her and a Budweiser for me.”
Undaunted, Carlos lingered. As Joe excused himself to watch sports in the bar, Carlos whispered to Sandy, “Only a fool would leave a woman like you alone.”
Carlos beckoned her to dance. They embraced. She pulled away saying she doesn’t know how to tango.
“You don’t dance the tango,” he replied an exaggerated Spanish accent. “You feel the tango!”
As rising swells of tango music left Sandy enraptured, the lust was eventually rechanneled toward her husband. The couple ordered a bottle of champagne as the short work concluded.
While not as riveting or intellectually engaging as past modern FWO works like Voir Direor JFK, Brief Encountersis an auditory amuse-bouche that is as delightful as it is earnest.
Brief Encounters runs tonight/Mon and tomorrow/Tue at Fort Worth Botanic Garden Lecture Hall, 3220 Botanic Garden Blvd, FW. $39. 817-731-0833.