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February 22, 2010

Peabody Chamber Opera goes through 'Transformations'

Before heading to Shriver Hall for Yefim Bronfman's recital, I stopped by the Theatre Project to catch as much as I could (about one-and-a-quarter acts) of Conrad Susa's "Transformations," in an imaginative, dynamic production from Peabody Chamber Opera.

This is a curious -- and curiously affecting --work. The text comes from Anne Sexton's poetic re-imagining of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. The poet, who took her own life a year after the opera's 1973 premiere, found in those tales new, provocative angles about sexuality, familial relations, love and death.

Susa, an underrated American composer (his "Dangerous Liaisons" from the 1990s deserves more attention, just for starters), produced a masterful opera out of the material, propelled by myriad styles, from Weill-esque cabaret to jazz. Somehow, everything fuses coherently -- well, as coherently as you would want for a work that is all about unexpected twists and strange detours.

Jennifer Blades directed the action on a minimal set with

an effective flow, generating from the cast a sturdy ensemble effort.

Maggie Finnegan was especially impressive in the central role of the opera, depicting the poet herself (cigarette and martini at the ready) and some characters from the stories; her singing had an admirable tonal purity and textual clarity. Stephanie Miller (the Princess) and Peter Tomaszewski (Neighboring King) also stood out for their warm, firmly supported voices. And all of the others -- Jennifer Hamilton, David Diehl, Curtis Bannister, Andrew Spardy, James Parks -- contributed something distinctive to the overall expressive musical and theatrical spark of the performance.

JoAnn Kulesza conducted sensitively and drew alert, polished playing from a chamber ensemble that seemed to relish the score's brilliant dance through Susa's idiomatic diversity.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:01 PM | | Comments (1)


I hoped to see a review of this production on Clef Notes. Thanks! After loving and hating it as I watched "Transformations" on Saturday night, I'm finding myself wishing I could see it again. A powerful work -- and excellent acting by these singers, too -- but definitely not for opera outreach programs.

It's a piece superbly suited to young singers, and I think the company made the most of the opportunities to get inside what is, on many levels, a tough assignment. TIM

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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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