Review: ‘Lost in the Stars’ at Washington National Opera

In the scorching, emotional and honest opera of man in search of redemption, the opera–Lost in the Stars, now playing as part of the Washington National Opera series at the Kennedy Center —is a searing exploration of transformative, radical Christianity.

Based on the classic South African novel, Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, the themes of oppression, guilt, forgiveness and atonement run rampant throughout this moving opera which is an ode to humanism and reconciliation.

Eric Owens (Stephen Kumalo) and Wynn Harmon (James Jarvis). Photo by Karli Cadel.
Eric Owens (Stephen Kumalo) and Wynn Harmon (James Jarvis). Photo by Karli Cadel.

Somewhat of a musical curiosity piece is that this “opera” does indeed have numerous spoken passages—– and what an interesting group of people had a part in making this “musical play” (yes, many people have referred to this as a “musical play”) come to fruition. What an interesting crew it is!  Aside from novelist Paton, we have the brilliant, socially –conscious German composer Kurt Weill turning in music that encompasses blues, jazz, African-American rhythms, and spirituals. Add to the mix a Book and Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, who was known for writing historical dramas (although he did write The Bad Seed and librettos for several musicals as well!). Is it any wonder that this opera is such an intriguing musical experience?

Director Tazewell Thompson keeps all elements of the large ensemble firmly in-hand and he stages the large ensemble musical numbers with vigor and robust movement. His staging of the arias “Murder in Parkwold,” “Fear” and —especially —“Cry, the Beloved Country” are simply stunning. Thompson seems to instinctively understand the intermingling of the natural elements that Anderson stresses throughout (light, sun, veld, soil, hills and —of course—the stars ) with man’s place in the universe —-if man’s bond with God is broken, the very cosmos is awry and unsettled.

Particularly impressive is Thompson’s polarizing staging of segregated groups of Whites and Blacks to convey the ongoing conflict between the groups. As a spiritual hope for reconciliation approaches towards the end, Thompson stages an intricate intermingling  of the races that is so touching and sensitive, that it is  hard to keep tears at bay.

Conductor John DeMain conducts the Washington National Orchestra with taut control and finesse. The instrumentals appropriately only enhance and embellish the eclectic lyrics and music rather than overpowering them. The Orchestra evoked tension and hysteria extremely well in “Trouble Man “, “Murder in Parkwold” and “Fear!”. The marvelous Chorus under the Direction of Chorus Master Steven Gathman excelled especially in “The Search”, “Lost in the Stars “ and “Cry, the Beloved Country”.

As the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, Bass-baritone Eric Owens is magnetic and riveting in every single scene he appears in. Like Spencer Tracy, Owens plays his role with an unstudied honesty and seeming simplicity that is so unfussy and natural, you can’t take your eyes off of him. His earnest pleading for compassion for his son– and his scene with the father of the son that his son murdered are unforgettable.

Obviously, Owens’ reputation properly rests on his gloriously resonant vocal powers. Owens’ thrilling chest tones are a thrill to hear. His rendition of “Lost in the Stars” is a powerhouse of raw anguish combined with vocal control. As he prowls around  the stage like a person possessed, he combines acting skills with musical skills to show he is the consummate performer.

Owens’ dramatic conveying of the song “O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me” shows the verisimilitude and fine shading within the deep range of Owens’ vocal instrument. Owens is a master at vocal control and it is obvious that he practices precise vocal control and pacing only to save the most powerful thrust of his voice of the elongated notes to savor at the conclusion of his songs.

Sean Panikkar was superb as The Leader. His beautiful tenor rang out on “The Hills of Ixopo” and “Cry, the Beloved Country.”

As Irina, Soprano Lauren Michelle possesses a delicate and sensitive, shimmering texture—especially in the lower and middle register. Soprano Michelle also shows a charismatic stage command whether appearing alone on stage or with other members of the ensemble. Her Soprano is the pure definition of soft and warm. Her rendition of the ravishing song “Trouble Man” is a knockout. As Ms. Michelle sang this lengthy piece, I was enthralled by her inherent understanding of the complexities and contradictions of her deep love for Absalom.

Manu Kumasi as Absalom Kumalo. Photo by Karli Cadel.
Manu Kumasi as Absalom Kumalo. Photo by Karli Cadel.

As Absalom Kumalo, Manu Kumasi acts up a storm of hurt, defiance, and —finally—repentance. His scenes with his father, with his love Irina and on the stand at court are riveting.

As the exuberant nephew, Alex, young Caleb McLaughlin practically steals the stage with his wonderfully entertaining agility. His charming singing voice was on display in the musical interlude “Big Mole.”

Wynn Harmon as James Jarvis showed immense skill in his transformation from the bigoted authoritarian to the tender comrade of reconciliation in the final moments of this very spiritual opera.

Cheryl Freeman as Linda sang with sensual gusto and panache in the more “Broadway-esque” and flashy number “Who’ll Buy?”.

The Set and Costume Designer Michael Mitchell was a “double-threat” of talent. Mitchell’s costumes were appropriately either crisp, careworn or colorful. The Set was constructed of corrugated metal –siding which perfectly conveyed the feeling of a shanty-town.

Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel was exceptional with rippling effects of light throughout songs, golden/amber hues and–especially—a backdrop of stars shining overhead and all around the depths of the stage.

Lost in the Stars is a spiritual and musical revelation! The WNO should be commended for bringing this fascinating musical journey into man’s soul to the nation’s capital.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.

Lost in the Stars plays through February 20, 2016 at The Washington National Opera performing in The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, , or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent review, and I would agree! I am a season-ticket holder to the Washington Opera, and this performance was spectacular! You explained the experience of being part of this opera quite well! As the audience, we really were a part of this story. Everyone around me was crying. Very moving indeed.

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