With new Cask and Garden Party, Daniel Pinkham marks his 80th

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 6/6/2003

Is Daniel Pinkham the first composer to celebrate his 80th birthday by attending the premiere of his latest opera?

Last night brought the debut of a new festival of chamber opera company, Opera Unlimited, and the first performance of Pinkham's one-act opera based on Edgar Allan Poe's classic revenge story, The Cask of Amontillado.

The composer wrote his own libretto for Cask, following Poe closely and using most of his dialogue; he also scored it for the same chamber ensemble as his 1977 comic opera Garden Party, adding a sixth musician, and a new color, with the French horn. The music, obviously modeled on Benjamin Britten's ''The Turn of the Screw'' is resourceful, colorful, and theatrically effective. There's a rollicking and sinister drinking song, a seductively uneasy waltz, and wine music of rippling sensuousness. ''Revenge'' is the key word, and the syllables spread over many notes; Pinkham's setting of the word ''Amontillado'' parallels this.

Pinkham wrote the role of Montresor for his old friend Richard Conrad, an experienced singing actor; his face and voice register every flicker of unrepentant emotion. His baritone has dried, but he is a singer who absolutely knows what he's doing. Alan Schneider played the gull as Montresor's victim Fortunato, and sang with a strong and supple tenor. Conductor John Finney led an assured and committed performance. Director Patricia-Maria Weinmann let the side down with a feeble staging of the famous denouement: Fortunato slipped all too easily into the fatal manacles; Montresor flourished a trowel, but failed to wall his victim up.

Garden Party grows on you. On one level is a cheerfully blasphemous retelling of Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden of Eden. There's a show-stopping barbershop quartet, a swishy Snake, an officious Angel Gabriel; at the end Adam and Eve look forward to exploring the dimensions of sin.

The music echoes Kurt Weill and cabaret, and then moves into another dimension with eloquent choral settings of poems by Norma Farber that explore the implications and consequences of man's first disobedience.

Conrad was appropriately shameless in the nonsinging role of the Snake, flicking his tongue lasciviously. He's a really good opera director, and he supplied a witty staging in the style of a 1930s musical -- Adam and Eve wore tennis whites, posed like Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Laura McPherson's playful set represented a vast improvement over her work for Cask, which looked like a scenery warehouse sale.

The delightful cast was headed by Joe Dan Harper as Adam, with Emily Browder as Eve. Aaron Engebreth was Gabriel, and Mark Pearson was the voice of God. The 12-voice chorus sounded splendid, and so did the expert chamber orchestra under Finney's sympathetic and pointed direction.

The audience responded with laughter, cheers, and, finally, a rousing chorus of ''Happy Birthday'' addressed to the perennially youthful composer as he joined the singers onstage.

This story ran on page C15 of the Boston Globe on 6/6/2003.



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