Elvis Costello's The Juliet Letters versatile & imaginativeReview
On Sunday, Urban Arias closed their season at The Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia. The company is known for their creative and “quickie” operas (this one was only sixty minutes), and they certainly did not disappoint. The Juliet Letters is described by the composer, Elvis Costello, as “a song sequence for string quartet and voice and it has a title. It’s a little bit different. It’s not a rock opera. It’s a new thing.” This work was mainly inspired by a professor in Italy who responded to letters addressed to Juliet Capulet.
The staging and direction of this song cycle by Cara Gabriel was versatile and imaginative. The singers moved seamlessly between songs. I had absolutely no idea what the music would sound like, and I was pleasantly surprised. There were some minimalist crunchy 20th-century moments, but overall the melodies were beautiful and catchy. Some sounded very operatic, and some had a flower child, Simon and Garfunkel vibe.
Soprano Melissa Wimbish was the standout of the small cast. Though she was only on stage for an hour, it was clear that Ms. Wimbish is a highly trained and highly dedicated singing actor. She opened the show as a tortured suicidal character, and at the end seemed at peace. I don’t know whether or not Ms. Gabriel meant for a continuing narrative for all the characters, but it was especially poignant for Ms. Wimbish’s character.
The music showcased a brilliant soprano and large range.
The opening number was sung by the ensemble, and each of their individual characterizations came out. They all held letters that they sent up into the air on a clothesline. At the end of the opera, the letters appeared again, the three reflected on the letters and left them alone, except for Ms. Wimbish’s character who took hers with a smile. The music showcased a brilliant soprano and large range.
The mezzo soprano character was sung by Aryssa Leigh Burrs, who displayed wonderful comedic timing. Baritone Robert Wesley Mason acted as a dramatic bridge between the two female players.
The very small band for this work was a string quartet made up from cast members of Inscape Chamber Orchestra. It had a full-bodied sound and played Costello’s textured and rhythmically difficult score. All the singers were impressive in their lightning quick switching between classical and contemporary style singing. There was a palpable and tight ensemble energy. It is sometimes said that opera is a “growth industry”, and with performances from a small but mighty company, I am more convinced that is the case.