Only Heaven: Opera News

He is not the most well–known American composer today, but does any colleague of Ricky Ian Gordon’s share or surpass his skills at writing achingly beautiful music for the human voice and picking such apposite poetry to translate into song? Only Heaven, a revue including more than two dozen of his settings of Langston Hughes’s poetry, suggested that the answer is no. Gordon’s music –– melodic, intimate, with an inspired gift for bringing out the inner music of a given poem in unexpected ways –– has no trouble finding the sound of any kind of Hughes lyric, whether comic, romantic, enraged or ruminative. The sound is an intriguing mix of art song and show tune; it can be as delicate as a chanson and as broad as a Gershwin dance number. (Bernstein’s and Weill’s American works are, I suspect, Gordon’s biggest influences.)

In this ninety–minute revue, beautiful song after beautiful song swept past the audience’s ears. The production, by Encompass: New Opera Theatre at the Connelly Theater (a small but acoustically formidable theater for opera and shows), was handsomely designed but a little misguided. Depression–era costumes gave Hughes’s words an almost stereotypically period feel. A quick walk around any part of New York demonstrates that Hughes’s sentiments and characters are as alive at this moment (and among all kinds of people) as they were when he created them.

But the composer couldn’t have asked for finer performances. Six musicians played the often–difficult orchestrations splendidly. Despite his being placed backstage, Charles Prince’s conducting was outstanding: deeply felt and beautiful. And the four singers were flawless. Michael Lofton offered a mature baritone with incisive, moving overtones. Sherry Boone’s light soprano gathered formidable power and thrust when a song’s emotions demanded them, and her tone was always beautiful. Monique McDonald, a lirico–spinto of considerable promise, soared through the most difficult above–the–scale passages, with sometimes astonishing success. In pianissimo, her voice didn’t ravish the ear as it did at all other dynamic levels. It was risky of Gordon to shun the jazzy imagery of "When Sue Wears Red," setting it instead as a song Satie would have recognized (and enjoyed), and it was extraordinary to hear tenor Keith Byron Kirk sail through the very high, sustained exultation of the melody with such complete authority. All the singers had the words and music to heart, and their singing and acting were rich with the full palette of emotions poet and composer created. Two gifted young dancers –– Monique Rhodriguez and Whitney V. Hunter –– were similarly successful.

– Patrick Giles, Opera News