OPERA REVIEW: ‘A Fleeting Animal’: A true Vermont opera

Jim Lowe / Staff photo Tenor Adam Hall and soprano Mary Bonhag are the troubled Tommy and Grace in “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine.”

Jim Lowe / Staff photo
Tenor Adam Hall and soprano Mary Bonhag are the troubled Tommy and Grace in “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine.”

THE LOWE DOWN | By Jim Lowe

At Friday’s opening night performance, moments in “A Fleeting Animal” — with the soaring voices of soprano Mary Bonhag as Grace and tenor Adam Hall as Tommy — could have been Puccini, but with a Vermont accent.

Set in Vermont, written and performed by Vermonters, “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine” is decidedly a Vermont opera, combining a love story with Vietnam War PTSD and the Northeast Kingdom. And it has the kind of power that made that great Italian opera composer so irresistible.

The revised Erik Nielsen-David Budbill opera proved entertaining as well as devastating, as only opera can be, thanks to an authentic libretto, a brilliant score, and a beautiful and exciting performance.

(The opera was repeated Saturday at the Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester, moving on to Hardwick Sunday, and Woodstock, Vergennes and Randolph this coming weekend weekend.)

The opera tells the tragic tale of Tommy, a Vietnam vet plagued with unhappy memories, and Grace, an impoverished single mother, in rural Vermont. They face not only the disapproval of their close-minded community but also their own inner demons. Despite their undeniable love for each other, the mix is explosive.

The result is tragic — and beautiful — opera.

Budbill’s authentic atmosphere and characters are made all the more vivid by Nielsen’s evocative score. Musical styles range from country and folk to blues to Broadway, as well as grand opera, made all the more immediate by contemporary classical harmonic and rhythmic language.

As with some of Puccini’s operas, there are some weak moments, though few, in the buildup to the powerful climax — and devastating anticlimax.

Nielsen, a Brookfield composer, and Budbill, a Wolcott poet now living in Montpelier, based “A Fleeting Animal” on Budbill’s 1991 “Judevine: The Complete Poems” (not the play). Commissioned by Vermont Opera Theater, the opera premiered to critical and popular success in 2000.

Revisions for this reprise included the elimination of the unnecessary penultimate scene where Grace rails at the audience.

Operatic is the only way to describe the performances by Bonhag and Hall. Bonhag, a Marshfield resident, owns a lyrical crystalline voice that soared when called upon. Hall, who lives in Burlington, proved a most expressive tenor. The two were most convincing — vocally and theatrically — as these troubled characters.

The French-Canadian woodcutter Antoine, the story’s conscience, was sung with richness and wit by Geoffrey Penar. Contrasting was soprano Allison Devery’s hauntingly beautiful performance as the Angel of Depression — devastating when in duet with Bonhag’s Grace.

Soprano Sarah Cullins proved witty as well as a fine singer as the town wag Edith. George Cordes used his powerful bass as Tommy’s bigoted colleague Doug, while soprano Stephanie Weigand was responsive as his disapproving wife.

Tenor Johnny Lee Green and baritone Thomas Beard were strong vocally and theatrically as Tommy’s Vietnam buddies James and William. They are backed by a fine chorus.

The production was given a feeling of authenticity and drama by the imaginative and sensitive stage direction of Margo Whitcomb. Expert musical direction was by Anne Decker, who also conducted the 2000 original. She led seven members of her ensemble TURNmusic — clarinet, string quartet, piano and percussion — all fine Vermont instrumentalists.

Staging was appropriately minimal, and Cora Fauser’s costumes felt authentic. Lighting was largely effective, but could have been more imaginative. At times, it was difficult to hear what was being sung, though the story was always obvious. Still, super-titles, though expensive, would have been ideal.

“A Flying Animal” is a true Vermont opera — authentic, tragic and beautiful.

‘A Fleeting Animal’
“A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine,” music by Erik Nielsen, libretto by David Budbill, will be performed:
– Friday, Sept. 18: Woodstock, Town Hall Theatre, 7:30 p.m.
– Saturday, Sept. 19: Vergennes, Vergennes Opera House, 7:30 p.m.
– Sunday, Sept. 20: Randolph, Chandler Music Hall, 4 p.m.
Tickets are $25; call the Barre Opera House box office, 476-8188, or go online to www.barreoperahouse.org. For information, visit www.afleetinganimal.com.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor for the Rutland Herald and The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
E-MAILjim.lowe@rutlandherald.com