Over the years, the Curtis Opera Theatre has periodically given double bills, most recently the 2018 Mahagonny Songspiel and The Medium in May and Trouble in Tahiti and Dido and Aeneas (as Trouble in Paradise) in November. The productions worked and didn’t, served the music and text and didn’t.

<i>Riders to the Sea</i> © William M Brown
Riders to the Sea
© William M Brown

Quite the opposite happened last week: the pairing of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea with Rene Orth’s Empty the House worked perfectly and did absolute justice to these two despair-filled operas, created almost ninety years apart, each an early work of the composer. Vaughan Williams’ was his Op.1 in 1927, not premiered till 1937, the words almost verbatim those of J. M. Synge’s one-act play in the dialect of the Aran Islands off the Irish coast. Rene Orth was still a Curtis student when she penned hers in 2015 with ingenious librettist Mark Campbell (Pulitzer Prize winner for Silent Night). For this version, they added text to clarify motivations, and Orth expanded the ensemble from nine instruments and electronic soundtrack to 25 plus sound design and electronics..

On every level, the operas drew the audience into their stories of families as devastated as any in the Greek tragedies. In the Riders set by Grace Laubacher, the stark interior of the grey stone cottage, despite its lit hearth, exuded dank cold; six crosses on the wall commemorated the men lost to the sea not far from the small thinly curtained window and the wind-blown door. Threatening clouds loomed beyond. Amanda Seymour’s early 20th-century costumes, their designs true to the location, were also dominated by grey, with dark burgundy for some of the long skirts and shawls that both warmed and hid.

<i>Riders to the Sea</i> © William M Brown
Riders to the Sea
© William M Brown

In a feat of nearly instantaneous set-change (to audience-gasps) Laubacher’s 1995 Houston kitchen of Empty the House appeared in its worn 1960s décor, with its own watery side: pouring rain in the first minutes and a periodically dripping faucet that Faith tries to stop as it keeps returning in the music, increasing the tension. Every aspect crucial to the action was there (not a given): the basement door, dated cabinets, table and chairs, and the refrigerator – more modern than everything else but nonetheless the same as ten years before, when Faith last visited. This realism was matched by that of the clothes, from Faith’s Cats t-shirt to Brenda’s slippers and Paul’s plaid shirt.

Lighting Designer Anshuman Bhatia was equally attuned to the contrasting settings: the shifting auras of the Irish coastal scene and the nearly constant overly bright light in the yellow kitchen (“like living inside a giant lemon” says Faith as she arrives).

Each opera has its ghost. Though we do not see that of Maurya’s son Michael, it is as if we did, as she recounts seeing the “fearfulest thing” – him riding with her still-living son Bartley. The music is as eerie as the words, just as the entire score continually evokes the vagaries, terror and omnipresence of the sea. We are not immediately aware that Paul is dead, his “current” encounters with his younger sister Faith all in her imagination along with flashbacks; but when the fact is clear, the painful words are also spoken in the notes.

<i>Empty the House</i> © William M Brown
Empty the House
© William M Brown

When I attended the 2016 premiere of Empty the House in the small Curtis Black Box, I was struck by Orth’s ability to paint each character in music expressing his or her personality, thoughts and even body language, whether in angry sarcasm or in poignant tenderness. The same was true this time, the musical and textual modifications making Brenda and her daughter more sympathetic, Paul even more so than he already was.

In both works, Mary Birnbaum’s direction was sensitive to every nuance of words and music; in the best tradition of Personenregie, she both drew out and enhanced the acting skills of the singers, guaranteeing a profoundly human interplay. The atmosphere of Riders to the Sea was heavy with sorrow and foreboding, that of Empty the House rife with conflicting emotions.

Mezzo Emily Damasco was a vocally and dramatically powerful Maurya; daughters Nora (soprano Sage De Agro-Ruopp) and Cathleen (soprano Olivia Smith) projected their anguish and tenderness with similar vocal and acting skill. Baritone Dennis Chmelensky was strong in the brief role of Bartley. Chmelensky, the original Paul, fully inhabited the role, his voice both sturdy and plangent. Soprano Sophia Hunt was a three-dimensional Faith, with a big vocal range, and soprano Tiffany Townsend used her rich voice and interpretive talent to make Brenda reveal her sorrowful, tormented soul.

As always, the Curtis Orchestra played brilliantly, and Daniela Candillari conducted as if she had known these two operas forever.

*****