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REVIEW: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Washington, DC: UrbanArias)

On Saturday in Washington, DC, UrbanArias opened The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It was a splendid production of an opera that is unfortunately unlikely to play in the Twin Cities any time soon.

Note: This review has been updated to correct the name of the conductor.

One of the unfortunate ways that much of opera in America has developed has been an obsession with large sizes. Giant casts, sprawling sets, an obsession with spectacle over storytelling – each of these elements is fine to a certain point, but when it lingers in excess becomes boring and empty. This is especially true in stagings of foreign language operas in which little effort is made to convey meaning, nuance, and sensitivity. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is in many ways the antithesis of these trends: It is an intimate drama with three characters, taking place in just two settings and engaging deeply with issues for which there are no easy answers and solutions. This is a perfect subject for musical meditation, using melody, harmony, and vocal expression to explore things that words alone cannot fully convey.

UrbanArias’ production is directed by Grant Preisser, whose work with Angels & Demons Entertainment was recently on display in the Twin Cities with The Marriage of Figaro at the James J. Hill House. Preisser also wore set, projection, and costume design hats, using these to create an interwoven world focusing on the psychology of Dr. P (Jeffrey Beruan)’s struggle with a degenerative mental disorder. Much of the narrative involves Dr. S (Ian McEuen)’s attempts to diagnose Dr. P and understand the accommodations that make his life with his wife Mrs. P (Emily Pulley) workable. Swirling projections hint at the blurring and crossings in Dr. P’s internal thought processes; the lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff is subtle but effective.

UrbanArias has made a name for itself doing operas that are less than 40 years’ old and written in English. This has much in common with the original mission of what is now Minnesota Opera, with a focus on shorter workers and intimate presentations – this opera runs 60 minutes with no intermission. This is a very full hour, and a large portion of the audience stayed afterwards for a talkback with both the cast and creative staff. More of these would be welcome in the Twin Cities – for those not previously familiar with the work or well-versed in classical music, there’s something very satisfying about being able to ask about nuances of expression and how the singer-actors understand the musical language and character arcs that you just experienced.

One of the highlights of the opera and its performance is a diagetic rendition of “Ich Grolle Nicht” from Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a song cycle with elements interwoven into the opera score. In the music for this song, there are two versions of some passages– a regular one, and one for more skilled and higher voices. These would normally never be heard together, but in this opera the two musical lines are joined in harmony – a new look at what was for many an old friend, musically speaking. McEuen, Beruan, and Pulley have lovely voices, rendered in different ways; although there aren’t many passages that stand out as set-piece arias, the numerous sung dialogue and arioso passages were without exception nuanced and well-rendered. The 7-piece chamber orchestra felt just right for the space, with a variety of colors and balancing well with the singers under Robert Wood’s baton. An interesting interjection into the opera was the use of two supernumeraries to graphically illustrate a game of chess – normally the most cerebral and hard-to-follow part of the opera, but here a device that was cited in the talkback as many audience members’ favorite moments.

While the Twin Cities is in the midst of its own opera renaissance, there is currently no one in town performing quite this type, scale, and age of repertoire. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is 30 years’ old this year; the staging by UrbanArias is only the 27th ever of this 1986 opera. Judging by the full house on opening night and all the people who lingered to discuss the performance, there’s a lot of still unmet demand.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat plays through October 22 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC.

Basil Considine