Monday, November 24, 2008

Divergence Vocal Theater: The Ottavia Project

Micha Penton as Ottavia and Michael Walsh as Ottone

photo by David A. Brown

Just because Claudio Monteverdi wrote his historic L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1642 doesn't mean it's a done deal. Not so in the hands of opera renegade Misha Penton, who launched her new multi-disciplinary endeavor, Divergence Vocal Theater, with The Ottavia Project this month at Barnevelder. She's not kidding about the divergence part; her program note she welcomes the opera police to come drag her away in chains.

The Ottavia Project
stems from Penton's ongoing obsession with the character of Ottavia/Octavia. Fusing select arias from Monteverdi, text from Octavia attributed to Seneca, music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Phillippe Rameau, and choreography by Toni Leago Valle, Penton hones in on Ottavia's inner turmoil and resulting choices. If you are familiar with Roman history, the Monteverdi opera, and Seneca, you will fare better in figuring out exactly what's going on. If you are not, I wouldn't be surprised if you put HBO's Rome on your Netflicks queue. Penton, a natural troublemaker, is more interested in stirring up questions than providing a neat and tidy package.

That said, for a first outing, The Ottavia Project was quite a polished package. Shelley Auer, looking rather dashing dressed as a man, made a handsome and convincing Nerone. Kinga Skretkowicz-Ferguson evoked pure sensuality as the troubled Poppea. Penton jumped inside Ottavia's character with authority, and Michael Walsh's centered performance as Ottone added depth. A spare set, modern costumes, and lighting design by Kris Phelps cleverly adapted from Suchu Dance's Impluvium, all contributed to the idea that we were not in operaland as usual.

The production's musical director and pianist Stephen W. Jones delivered a stirring performance of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor from Partita for Solo Violin no 2. Penton's frequent collaborator Valle choreographed a stormy passage for the characters of Love, Virtue, and Fortune, danced with great finesse by Mechelle Fleming, Lindsey Magill, and Brittany Wallis. After an opening sequence where the dancers rest, quietly witnessing the mysterious proceedings, they bust loose in Valle's complex and moving choreography. Ending on an abstract modern dance note felt about right.

If, in fact, the opera police did show, it seems they stayed for the reception and were last seen downing those tasty pomegranate mimosas. A wise choice.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.