Lawrence Edelson, the new general and artistic director of Opera Saratoga, comes to the company from American Lyric Theater, where he has helped to spark and develop contemporary works during his time as producing artistic director. Edelson intends to do new works yearly in Saratoga. This summer included a notably successful world premiere — The Long Walk, by Jeremy Howard Beck, who turns thirty this year — that had been shepherded by ALT. Beck’s apt score, eclectically sourced but individual in timbre, represents one of the more effective integrations of rock elements (including two electric guitars) and prerecorded material I have ever heard. Despite relatively small instrumental forces, Beck managed a wide variety of textures and sustained narrative tension with shrewd rhythmic choices. Stephanie Fleischmann based the smart libretto — its occasional repetitions usually making a point — on Brian Castner’s 2012 memoir of overcoming ordnance-disposal service in Iraq and his resultant brain traumas and alienation from his heroic wife, Jessie, and their three children. The result gripped July 13’s matinée audience at the Spa Little Theater (the premiere had been on the 10th) and should be seen at other companies that have a relatively intimate stage and commitment to operatic work rooted in contemporary issues.
David Schweizer’s direction was consistently strong, deploying a fine cast realistically through a piece in which memories prove a frequent, unwanted reality for the protagonist. Split-focus scenes — upstairs and down, in Buffalo and in Iraq — were aided by Mimi Lien’s excellent two-level set, tucking the orchestra visibly into a glass booth on the lower portion. Steven Osgood’s expert musical direction presented Beck’s fine music strongly; occasionally the sound design gave the singing too generalized a resonance.
Saratoga’s cast could scarcely have been better, though the natural boyishness of Daniel Belcher (a bravura Brian in acting, verbal articulation and subtly applied tone color) sometimes undermined his status as a grizzled warrior. Belcher’s youthful affect was augmented by his usual attire of running shorts — the character begins and ends the opera running in the Buffalo suburbs, away from “WAS” and toward “IS.”
Heather Johnson, her handsome mezzo rich, her treatment of words full of nuance, generated much sympathy as Jessie. She sang Jessie’s affecting top-of-Act II aria beautifully. Belcher shared many scenes, including a hushed, almost nostalgic quartet of bonding, with the singers embodying his explosive-disposal comrades, all now dead — trenchant tenor David Blalock (Ricky), consistently lyrical high tenor Javier Abreu (Castleman) and powerfully sonorous bass-baritone Justin Hopkins (Jeff). Fleischmann and Schweizer cleverly juxtaposed Brian’s conflicting loyalties to his three buddies and his children, played disarmingly by three fine trebles, Eric Schuett (Martin), Robert Wesley Hill (Virgil) and Henry Wager (Sam).
Caroline Worra brought star presence and her shining tone and dead-on attacks to three sharply contrasting roles. Another fine soprano, Donita Volkwijn, also aced a trio of portraits. The spiritual-based military funeral scene, in which Volkwijn played with great dignity the widow of a fallen comrade of Brian’s, could be said to represent yet another appropriation of the African–American idiom by a Caucasian composer; yet the scene effectively opened out the hitherto tightly domestic story, introduced salutary formal elements visually and harmonically — and served as a reminder of how relatively high is the proportion of minority enlistment in today’s armed forces. This was a strong, moving show. — David Shengold