Last summer Urban Opera
burst onto the local performing arts scene with a magnificent production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
that became one of the most discussed and admired performances of the year. That success made many people wonder what Artistic Director Chip Grant was going to do next, but word from the company on their next production didn't arrive until last month, when they announced they were going to perform "The Witch of Endor," again featuring the music of Purcell. It wasn't really clear what this was actually going to be, since there is no such opera and the initial information given was more intriguing than informative.
On Saturday at 4:00 in the afternoon, while standing in the courtyard of the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin waiting for the doors to open, a raggedy man entered pushing a cart full of trash and stood in front of the church door. He held a crushed can in his raised hand, using it as a clicker to gain people's attention. Then he started to recite Rudyard Kipling's "The Witch of En Dor" and it felt like something out of Cormac McCarthy novel. The doors then opened and we were ushered inside the beautiful small, Scandanavian-looking church, where the small orchestra was playing and the chorus was already seated. From the beginning it seemed like this was going to be something different and it was.
The orchestra, comprised of two violins, viola, two cellos and a harpsichord were playing the chaconne from King Arthur. After the audience was seated, the Rev. Dr. Jason Parkin stood before us and read a passage from Samuel, in a sense providing us with the plot of what we were about to see. A screen was lowered and a 16mm black and white film showing coronation ceremonies, military processions, weird looking old women and more were shown, illustrating the story of Saul's ascent as king and his banishment of witches from the kingdom.
The witch hunt was enacted by a drum circle and actors, followed by the orchestra playing the Canzonetta from Sonata V. This was exciting to watch, as it wasn't clear what was going to happen next. Bare chested men were being roughed up, a beautiful witch in a gorgeous costume was being exiled and then Saul (Colby Roberts) entered and stood center stage to sing "Hear My Prayer O Lord" accompanied by the chorus.
Then we came to the center of the work, beginning with a scene from The Indian Queen where the Goddess of Dreams- Lindsey McLennan (in another fantastic costume, singing from the rear balcony of the church) tells Saul "seek not to know." The choreography and music were compelling at this point and it was already clear the company was doing something truly visionary and unique. From there the orchestra performed In Guilty Night, where Saul meets his demise after a warning by Samuel (a fantastic turn by John Mingaro) who has been conjured up the witch (superbly sung by Shawnette Sulker) at Saul's request.
When Saul dies, the chorus, which had steadfastly remained seated in profile during the entire performance, turned to show the hidden sides of their faces had been painted in death skulls. It was a great theatrical touch but it was perhaps just the best of many that were thoughtfully placed throughout the piece. The raggedy man from the beginning (Gary Graves) returned to finish Kipling's poem. And then this brilliant production was over before an hour had even elapsed. No filler, no fluff, and everything about it moved toward the climax like a bullet shot from a gun in the hand of Aristotle.
Congratulations Urban Opera- not only have you come up with another winner, but this was wholly original, exciting, and like last year's Dido, is probably going to be talked about for a long time. This production confirms the company is no fluke. So let's have some more and please don't make us wait another year before you do something else. Bay Area opera lovers can only hope in vain that the big company at the War Memorial would do something this interesting and well-executed.