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The Facts and Fantasies of Florida, a Jazz Opera

In 2002 at New York City Opera's extraordinary showcase of new opera called Vox, the Dresser caught a glimpse of composer Randall Eng's and librettist Donna Di Novelli's Florida, then a jazz song cycle with strong music theater leanings. Finally, sixteen years later on April 7, 2018, the jazz opera achieved its notable world premiere by UrbanArias at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC, under the stage direction of Kevin Newbury. Florida runs 100 minutes not including one fifteen intermission.

Like music theater, this work, done in two acts, is organized by musical numbers, which in Act I are distinct song titles like "Blue and Wild" and in Act II are usually functional descriptions like "Autopsy No. 1." Seventeen members make up the orchestra as conducted by the enthusiastic and passionate Robert Wood who directed the singers by camera since the orchestra was behind the stage set. The orchestra includes a seven-person string section (including a harp), a five-person woodwind section (including saxophone), a three-person brass section (horn in F, trumpet in Bb and trombone), one percussionist, and one pianist. While the music with its distinct jazz inflection calls for this variety of instruments, sometimes the large orchestra covered the singers, especially when the brass section was playing.

Florida.jpg

The story, populated with nosy neighbors and a boy on the prowl for the new girl in town, concerns a 16-year-old girl who is accused unjustly of murdering her mother.

Donna Di Novelli's libretto reminds the Dresser of The Juniper Tree by Philip Glass--both have a dead character that haunts the second half of the work. While Florida is not drawn from fairytale like The Juniper Tree, Florida has a set of oddly named surreal characters, starting with the protagonist: Florida Fandango. The word florida comes from the Spanish florido which means full of flowers. In the song "My First Champagne," Florida explains her name at a party to various guests:

No, I wasn't named after a state.
The translation is flowered.
You know, as in de-flowered.

My mother was thinking of how to deliver
the sound of hibiscus in one name.
The breath of gardenia,
the lilt of a tulip,
a floral effusion I'd grow up to claim.

She started with vowels,
the movement of hips,
the sounds made by F--
Fff. Fff.
Two letters that bite on your lips.

Florida says her last name is a mistake. Her mother meant flamenco, the dance of "drumming defiance with every tap" but picked fandango, "a slave dance [where] the ankles are bound, ...don't leave the ground [and] keep you circling around." The name suggests the girl's fate--she flowers and then becomes slave to her sexuality which is the basis of her murder rap.

DeadMom.jpg

Except for Marc, the boyfriend who actually confesses to killing Florida's mother, all the other main characters are known by descriptive labels. Florida's mother is identified in the cast list as "One Dead Mother." The family who lives next door to Florida and her mother are known as Redwood Male, Redwood Female, Redwood Son, and Redwood Daughter. Metaphorically, they are associated with their redwood deck from where they spy on the mother and daughter. In the Urban Dictionary of slang, the name Mark or Marc is either a target for someone else's trickery or the kindest and most handsome of men. Clearly Di Novelli has created a surreal set of characters where what happens does not seem to matter. This is what literary peeps would say is a character-driven composition. Once the audience understands the absurdity built into these characters, one should not worry about every word or finding the story. Overall it is better to absorb the sophisticated and accessible jazz.

The living cast of singers are all impressive performers. They have great enunciation and expression. Sharin Apostelou as Florida stands out, especially in her solos "There's a Scream Inside of me" and "Madly in Love."

In general, the Dresser enjoyed the second act better than the first because Act I confused her--it starts where Act II ends. Simply put, when this opera begins, Florida is looking back on what had happened to her. A program note might have been useful in orienting the viewer. Now that the Dresser has seen the entire work, she thinks Florida would be worth seeing and hearing again. The music is the draw. The dark comedy is secondary as the framework.

In Moira Egan's poem "Maurice Utrillo, sa grand-mère et son chien," the poet points out many aspects of what is missing from Suzanne Valadon's family portrait -- grand-mère's wild daughter (Utrillo's mother, the wild daughter, is Suzanne Valadon), Utrillo's unknown father, and certainly grand-mère's missing smile (she wears a continuous frown). In Florida, we are made aware of the many possibilities of who could have been the teenage girl's father but we are never told how or why the girl's mother was murdered. While Valadon delivers her rich conception in paint, Randall Eng gives his audience everything they need to know in the tonal colors and polyrhythms of jazz.

UtrilloPortrait.jpg

MAURICE UTRILLO, SA GRAND-MÈRE ET SON CHIEN (1910)

He's learned to look into his mother's eyes
and gazes straight with equal parts chagrin
and love, the drunken nights no more surprise

to her. He holds his left hand angled, strong and fine;
his face is pale, his beard Mephistophelian.
(What deal's been struck with whom, and at what price?)

Grandmother, meanwhile, looks off to the side
and downward, face etched, permafrost, the frown
she nearly always wears (despite their life

if not of luxury, at least of pride).
Her life's work, too, shows clearly in her hands.
She managed to escape the village gibes

and get to Paris. Why then can't she smile?
Her daughter, lovely, could've had any man
she wanted (and she did). The boy's profile--

one has one's theories. Yes, the girl was wild.
But family is family: mother, son,
grandmother--even some love set aside

to lavish on the dog, with gentle eyes
and paw outstretched beside Grandmother's hand.

by Moira Egan
from Synaesthesium

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 11, 2018 12:16 PM.

The previous post in this blog was In a Time of Winter Comes a New Winter's Tale.

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