‘Intimate Apparel’ Review: A Beautifully Stitched Opera

The operatic adaptation of Lynn Nottage’s play marries the best of its love-and-loss narrative to Ricky Ian Gordon’s musical talents in Bartlett Sher’s production

“Intimate Apparel,” the touching new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage now at Lincoln Center Theater, is a good advertisement for a long and productive creative lead time. Composer and librettist were brought together by the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program over a decade ago; the opera went through multiple workshops to refine Ms. Nottage’s adaptation of her 2003 play and Mr. Gordon’s musical interpretation. Scheduled to open in March 2020, the show was shut down by Covid-19 after three weeks of previews. Now running at LCT’s chamber-size Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, in a tight production by Bartlett Sher, performed by a splendid cast, “Intimate Apparel” is an elegantly constructed piece of theater in which music significantly expands and enriches the themes and emotions of the original play.

Set in 1905 in New York, the opera is the story of Esther, a 35-year-old Black seamstress who creates lingerie for clients who include a rich white matron (Mrs. Van Buren) and a Tenderloin prostitute (Mayme). She lives in a boarding house with a sympathetic landlady (Mrs. Dickson) and has been diligently sewing her savings into a quilt for 18 years, planning to open a beauty parlor someday. She is illiterate, but with the aid of her clients, she carries on a romantic correspondence with George, a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal; her longing for love is the chink in her armor of practicality and selfreliance. Esther’s true soul mate is Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant with whom she bonds over the beauties of silk, wool and lace, but their relationship can go no further. Act I ends with a wedding, but in the second act, when an accelerating cascade of events shows George’s virtues to be an illusion, Esther is left to fall back on her own strengths.

Ms. Nottage radically trimmed the play’s text, but also expanded it, creating subtly rhymed arias out of single sentences. There is no fat on the libretto—Mrs. Van Buren, Mayme, Mrs. Dickson and Mr. Marks each have just one brief aria that precisely establishes his or her essence and why that matters to Esther’s plight. The play was all twocharacter scenes; for the opera, an eight-member chorus enables the creation of larger episodes that were only described in the original, such as the opening party, which sets Esther’s solitude against the jolly ragtime antics of the boarding house, and the dice game in which George loses Esther’s savings. Ensemble members also sing shadowy backup parts in solos such as George’s letters, lending them extra depth.

Episodes flow smoothly from one into the other, thanks to Mr. Gordon’s careful setting of the text, which segues effortlessly from expository conversation into arias and ensembles. The underlying momentum afforded by period styles like ragtime and blues never feels like affectation, and the two-piano accompaniment offers both tonal richness and percussive clarity that never overwhelms the voices.

With her eloquent soprano, Kearstin Piper Brown conveyed Esther’s stoic dignity and reserve, making her disillusionment all the more heartbreaking. Baritone Justin Austin ably characterized George’s two faces: the passionate balladeer of Act I, wooing Esther in poetic letters that it turns out he did not write, and the real, much darker man of Act II who is illiterate, has a marked Bajan accent, and is more interested in his wife’s money than her love. Krysty Swann’s voluptuous mezzo brought a louche ease to Mayme; soprano Adrienne Danrich gave Mrs. Dickson’s motherly warnings to Esther (“Marry up”) extra force; mezzo Naomi Louisa O’Connell made Mrs. Van Buren’s boredom and disappointment sympathetic. Arnold Livingston Geis’s sensitive tenor poignantly expressed the loneliness of Mr. Marks; the rippling piano accompaniment sensually illustrated the love of beautiful things that he and Esther share. Conductor Steven Osgood and pianists Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk skillfully coordinated the musical action from two platforms set high above the stage. Marc Salzberg’s careful sound design kept the balances steady and the text clear.

Michael Yeargan’s spare turntable set made the music’s smooth scenic flow visual. Simple pieces of furniture—Esther’s sewing machine, the table on which Mr. Marks unrolls his luxurious fabrics, Mrs. Van Buren’s boudoir chaise longue—established each setting, and were quickly moved on and off by ensemble members. Catherine Zuber created the splendid period costumes, including Esther’s extravagant corset creations and the Japanese silk smoking jacket that symbolizes the downfall of her hopes. Jennifer Tipton did the atmospheric lighting; a few projections (59 Productions), such as a crowded street on the Lower East Side, came and went swiftly, letting the audience concentrate on the characters, their trials and dramatic arc deftly limned by Mr. Sher’s acute direction. In the intimate, 290-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, gathered around the thrust stage, we seemed to be living in their world.

– Keidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal, 8 February 2022