Oliver Sacks’ non-fiction book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, consists of a series of neurological case studies. Each study examines one of Sacks’ patients, each of whom is suffering from one form or another of neurological disorders.
Composer Michael Nyman’s chamber opera takes the title’s case study, in which Doctor P and his wife struggle to understand his visual agnosia (an inability to recognize the meaning of visual information), and transforms it into an intimate three-character portrayal of the terror of that discovery.
Conducted by Robert Wood, with direction by Grant Preisser, the intimacy of Atlas’ Paul Sprenger Theatre serves the UrbanArias opera wonderfully, as Doctor S explores the details of P’s mysterious disassociation.
Ian McEuen plays Doctor S (Sacks) with a relentless pursuit of the truth.
Doctor P, a famous musician and singer, is played by Jeffrey Beruan. Mr. Beruan gives the musically gifted patient a marvelously perplexed countenance as he allows Doctor S to examine him.
Doctor P’s wife, played by Emily Pulley, looks on anxiously. We can feel her anxiety with each poke and prod of the examination, as Ms. Pulley captures that tension with every note.
When Doctor S comes to the P’s house to continue his exploration, we know it is only a matter of time before the mystery is solved.
All three singers possess strong voices, and they keep their exchanges dramatically focused and nuanced.
Ms. Pulley has the strongest emotional moments as she realizes that discovery of the truth is coming nearer, but Mr. Beruan rendition of Robert Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht” captures the beauty of his life in music.
Nyman’s score remains within the context of the dialogue, however, with the libretto by Sacks, Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris interestingly staying confined among the characters. Given the subject, a man whose life has become a musical composition, one imagines the possibilities.
Mr. Wood’s work with the INSCAPE Chamber Orchestra was superb.
With Laura Frazelle and Sandy Choi on violin, Tiffany Richardson on viola, Kathryn Hufnagle and Daniel Shomper on cello, Monika Vasey on harp, and R. Timothy McReynolds on piano the 60-minute score moved perfectly in sync with the opera’s dramatic tension.
Director Preisser brought out the subtleties among the characters. His projections highlighted P’s visual agnosia with marvelous effect.
To be sure, Oliver Sacks’ examination of the wonders of neurology are the intellectual design of this opera.
But, at its heart, is the human drama of those discoveries.
UrbanArias’ production of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat brings that human drama into clear focus, with beautiful effect.
Running Time: 60 minutes, without an intermission.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat plays through October 22, 2016, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.