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