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April 26, 2009

'Dora,' Freud-based work staged by Peabody Chamber Opera at Theatre Project, could use more therapy

Peabody Chamber OperaOperas can spring from almost any source, including the analyst's couch. Dora, with music by Melissa Shiflett and libretto by Nancy Fales Garrett, takes its inspiration from one of Sigmund Freud’s early cases. It’s a troubling case at that. A teen is driven to “hysteria” by strange circumstances in her home life that involve her father, a married couple and, naturally, lots of sexual undercurrents.

Peabody Chamber Opera, taking up residence at the Theatre Project over the weekend, gave Dora a thoughtful, if ultimately unpersuasive, staging. I’m not at all sure that any production could make this material totally effective, since there are too many holes in the libretto, too many weaknesses in the score.

For all of its titillating aspects – near-nudity, suggestive pawing, the occasional sexual term, etc. – the essence of the case remains elusive. Worse, there really isn’t enough drama, either early on, when the character of Dora is supposed to be so troubled and uncommunicative, or at the end, when she breaks off therapy with Freud. The opera is oddly vague or simply uninformative about such crucial things as Dora’s change of heart and Freud’s inability to see the total picture.

The nature of the score, very tonal and inflected with waltzes and other familiar idioms, and the nature of the often rhymed text (including an odd attempt to make “means” and “Frauleins” rhyme) suggest that ...

Shiflett and Garrett were thinking along Sondheim-esque lines – specifically A Little Night Music – as they fashioned this very adult piece. But, based on the results, it appears that Shiflett doesn’t have a distinctive enough melodic invention to carry words compellingly (let alone with the sort of sophistication and ear-catching vividness of a Sondheim). The music just churns along in faceless fashion, for the most part. The few striking passages, including a children’s song that appears, laden with dual meaning, aren’t quite enough to carry the opera.

That said, the composer’s knack for instrumental coloring is highly admirable. The orchestration, neatly accented by guitar and subtle percussion, gives Dora its most consistently rewarding element. The fine Peabody musicians, carefully and sensitively led by Karin Hendrickson, brought out that quality on Friday.

Voices-in-progress were the rule among the cast members (Friday's cast performs again Sunday; an alternate group sang Thursday and Saturday). The most tonally and technically impressive singing came from Tiffany Wharton as Frau K.

Roger Brunyate directed the action fluidly, making use of just a couple props (especially a desk that got moved around perhaps a little too often), and gaining atmosphere from Douglas Nelson’s lighting design.

In the final analysis, I think Dora needs to find a more imaginative way to uncover its deepest self, and release its full potential.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER COURTESY OF PEABODY CONSERVATORY (Jessica Abel as Dora, and Curtis Bannister as Herr K)

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:14 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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