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Opera Review: Love Puts on a Tender ‘Hat’ at Nashville Opera

Hat011Nashville Opera’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat in little over an hour packs everything a good piece should have – compelling characters, engaging plot that generates emotional responses through resonant conflicts, gorgeous voices, terrific technical framing and sublime music played beautifully.

Hat013Those remarkable custodians of artistic expression housed at Noah Liff Opera Center and led by General and Artistic Director John Hoomes have provided another production to cherish. Like last year’s The Difficulty of Crossing a FieldHat” may be different from traditional operas (at which Hoomes and Co. also excel) in size and style but not in terms of emotionally powerful storytelling.

Hat015I won’t use this paragraph for typical reviewing background on the Michael Nyman-composed piece. (Click here for an in-depth look at this production.) I will say his complex score, and Christopher Rawlence’s fine balance between case-study jargon and commonplace speech in his English-language libretto, are handled with the greatest care by Nashville Opera’s singers and musicians.

Tenor Ryan MacPherson has to deal with much of that jargon as Dr. S (one prominent example is the sentence “Aphonia, Aphemia, Aphasia, Alexia, Apraxia, Agnosia, Amnesia, Ataxia” in the first scene), and he delivers it as if he’d been a medical man for many years. He also provides fine examples of his ample range and rich timbre while believably giving us a character arc that takes Dr. S from observer to participant.

Hat010Bass Matthew Treviño is the embodiment of grace as Dr. P. That doesn’t mean we don’t see the downside of his character’s medical condition – it’s just that he’s so masterfully made us care about Dr. P that when the terrible price of his affliction appears our hearts break. And oh, that voice – strong for the rendition of a song from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, supple for the poignant description of an image in “The River” and smooth throughout. Listening to him I felt as if I was wrapped in a soft, warm velvet blanket.

Treviño and soprano Rebecca Sjöwall are husband and wife in this show. Watch “The Dressing Ritual” alone and you’ll swear the two off-stage friends are actually wedded in real life because their chemistry is so good.

Hat6Sjöwall was impressive in “Difficulty” last year and is completely entrancing this time as well. Her voice is a bright light beckoning us forward; her total immersion in character takes us through Mrs. P’s denial, anger and finally tearful acceptance of the cruel disorder that has befallen her beloved. Her climactic singing scream of “Philistine!” at Dr. S is one of the most electrifying moments I’ve experienced in more than 40 years of attending live opera and theater performances. I hope Hoomes casts this brilliant artist in Nashville Opera presentations every time he has the chance.

The monochromatic set – painted by Erica Edmonson to include the reproduction of a 1950s black-and-white neurology chart with labeled brain parts – combined with Barry Steele’s lighting precision and his imaginative video/still-image projection designs provide an appropriate coldly clinical contrast to the very tender story of love and loss unfolding so exquisitely in the Liff’s intimate Opera Studio. And Conductor Dean Williamson and the seven-piece Nashville Opera Orchestra? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never was so much owed by so many to so few – their number is little but their superb contribution to our enjoyment of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat is huge.

Hat8The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat completes its run with performances today (Nov. 9) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Opera Studio on the second floor of the Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights (3622 Redmon St.). Tickets are available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040, or online at www.nashvilleopera.org. The opera is sung in English with projected lyrics. Two ticketing levels are available: $35 for Reserved and $50 for Premiere which features cushioned seating courtesy of Music City Tents and Events. There is a 15-minute Opera Insights event with John Hoomes one hour before each show. There will be talkbacks with the cast and crew 20 minutes after each performance.

Hat4*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).