‘Penny’ at Washington National Opera

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The world premier for the Washington National Opera’s newest American Opera Initiative takes a new look at the power of music in the touching, engrossing drama Penny, which follows an autistic young woman who cannot speak but finds a way to communicate in song.

Deborah Nansteel as Penny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Deborah Nansteel as Penny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello continues her hot streak and her commitment to new works and American artists and stories with the commission of Penny. The creative team of Douglas Pew (who wrote the music) and Dara Weinberg (who wrote the libretto) delivers a contemporary, uniquely American opera.

This story is set in Phoenix in an every day living room by Set Designer Daniel Conway, enhanced with lights by A.J. Guban who somehow manages to conjure the Arizona sun. Lynly A. Saunders’ modern costumes contribute to the everyman quality.

It follows the story of Penny Rutherford, an autistic woman who must move in with her sister and her husband. Weinberg has a knack for characters and tells a big story in this hour-long piece where every character has an agenda. Pew’s music brings to mind the classic scores of the 1950s with big sweeping chords and a haunting motif for Penny herself – who first connects to the audience with wordless melody.

Of the six performers, five are members or former members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which trains opera talent within the WNO.

Deborah Nansteel (Penny) anchors the show with a powerful voice and versatile acting to bring a difficult character to life. Her melodic arias are simply beautiful, and the penultimate ballad “To love the desert is to love the silence” is a triumph. Kerriann Otaño and Trevor Scheunemann (Katherine and Gary Tate) play off each other well even as they try to use Penny or help her with songs like “I Know What’s Best for Penny.”

Patrick O’Halloran (Martin) is a highlight as the boy who pulls Penny out of his shell and his tenor voice soars on his duets with her.

Wei Wu and James Shaffran (Mr. Jaeson Shaw & Raymon Fasten) round out the cast. Both have powerful pipes and add dimension to the web Weinberg spins around her main character.

Director Alan Paul has a challenge to dramatize what is essentially an internal condition of the mind and he does a good job letting us into Penny’s world with little props and touches, aided by the expressive music conjured by Conductor Anne Manson, fresh off her debut at Carnegie Hall.

There are moments of real genius in this opera – when character, music, and song meet in a way that’s pure magic. There are other moments that prove this is a brand new work and there are still some wrinkles of plotting to work out. Sometimes the point gets lost, but it’s an ambitious story to tell in an hour and hopefully Pew and Weinberg will have a chance to flesh it out and focus the story on Penny’s journey.

Every so often a journalist will assert that opera is dead or dying given the intense training it takes to excel, the huge staging, and the focus on oft-performed classics. The WNO proves season after season that this art form is very much alive in the new artists trained and new works commissioned.

Wei Wu, Deborah Nansteel, Trevor Scheunemann, and Kerriann Otano in 'Penny.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

Wei Wu, Deborah Nansteel, Trevor Scheunemann, and Kerriann Otano in ‘Penny.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Penny is a worthy addition to the American canon, telling a modern story of music, family, and independence. Penny is a thought-provoking musical feast.

Penny plays through today, January 24, 2015 at 7:30pm – at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater -2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 444-1324, or (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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