Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising
By Perry Tannenbaum
March 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Four men give their lives to save just one woman soldier, a woman so severely injured that she must be placed in an induced coma to give her any chance of continued survival or even partial recovery. The math and the logic may not seem to add up unless you’ve served in the military or you’ve witnessed The Falling and the Rising, a fairly new opera by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye that may impact Opera Carolina audiences more freshly today than when it premiered in 2018.
Before COVID and Ukraine, when the White House was occupied by a grifter who labeled people who signed up for battlefield duty as “suckers,” the mentality passionately advocated by The Soldier protagonist – that military service is not only a commitment to give your life for your country but also a commitment to give your life for your soldiering comrades – may have seemed rabid, over-the-top, or naively gung-ho. After witnessing the bravery of so many healthcare workers routinely facing the perils of a deadly transmissible disease for the past two years and, more recently, the inspiring popular resistance of so many outgunned Ukrainians, we can likely view that military mentality – and those four soldiers’ sacrifice – as making more sense.
This brash Opera Carolina production, conducted by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and stage directed by Sam Mungo, brings the company to a new venue, the Sandra Levine Theatre in the gorgeously renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, while it brings subscribers a radically different experience. Once the female Soldier is comatose, we’re carried along with her for the bulk of the opera on a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of dream sequences, so the military experience is conveyed to us not only by soldiers in battle and trauma, but also by dedicated doctors and anxious family.
The immersion begins in the Gambrell lobby, where you can pick up info on the Montford Point Marine Association and the Blue Star Mothers of Charlotte. You can also peep in on artworks and obtain a comprehensive coffee table book produced by Bullets & Bandaids, a non-profit veteran and civilian art project. Immersion couples with education at the Gambrell, so it’s fitting that the complex is on the Queens University campus, for the world premiere of The Falling and the Rising was also on academic soil at Texas Christian University, one of seven organizations that commissioned the piece.
A new work set in wartime might trigger a couple of red flags for traditional opera lovers averse to chaos and cacophony. But you’ll find that Redler’s score is comfortably tonal and melodic when soprano Melinda Whittington begins singing a birthday video into a laptop computer for her daughter’s upcoming thirteenth, apologizing and commiserating because they will not be together to celebrate. In fact, when Redler has Whittington pivoting to a shuffle beat, you might briefly wonder whether the composer has crafted a score that’s too casual and accessible.
The roadside IED explosion, with a striking video montage by designer Michael Baumgarten (lights/scenery/video), puts that worry permanently to rest. After the hospital huddle of doctors and a ZOOM consultation where the induced coma is prescribed, the opera is largely a series of extended arias and duets until we reach a closing paean to the men and women who serve, joined by a pre-chosen brigade of vets parading up to the stage from the audience.
Sound at the Levine is noticeably more resonant than the Belk Theater and marginally warmer than Knight Theater, halls where we normally hear Opera Carolina and Charlotte Symphony. Although directors might be tempted to mic student plays and musicals in this 1000-seat space, all of the soloists projected quite easily on opening night to Row M, where we were seated. Redler’s orchestration for 11 musicians balanced well with the singers, and Urbanek had no difficulty in coaxing a hearty variety of colors from her band, which included a French horn, clarinet, guitar, piano, two percussionists, and strings. There is an orchestra pit at the Levine, but it doesn’t protrude far – or impinge on the bond between audience and performer. When baritone Kenneth Overton as the Homecoming Soldier concluded his church sermon, seated in a wheelchair in front of a large wooden crucifix, it didn’t feel like he was calling across a wide gulf when he asked us for an “Amen!”
Gathered from interviews at Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and the famed Walter Reade Military Medical Center, Dye’s libretto was suffused with authenticity and often riveting. Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock exuded intensity as Staff Sergeant First Class Toledo, steely and tough as her nickname, which figures into the boot camp segment of her aria. Dominic Armstrong took us to the skies with his heroic tenor voice as Jumper, a First Sergeant who mixes hard-nosed honesty with patriotism as he readies Soldier for her first parachute jump. Parting words: “Don’t forget to pull the string!” After that uplift, bass-baritone Peter Morgan brought us back down to earth as Colonel, seen in civvies in his living room, hoping that his military wife will survive.
Each of these monologues was substantial enough to give Whittington a chance to rest her voice before she joined in duet, a mercy when you consider the extra decibels she can pour out. The most brutally honest testimony in this cavalcade came from Overton in his wheelchair as the Homecoming Soldier, ideally placed by Dye at the juncture of his libretto between the last of personal testimonies and our protagonist’s emergence from her coma. Also artful were the spins that Dye put on his title, for we quickly learned that The Falling and the Rising wasn’t simply, as we expected, about the traumas and dramas of battlefield injury and recovery. We first encountered “The falling and the rising” in the Soldier’s memories of her daughter, back when she was an infant and Soldier was simply a mom watching her baby’s breathing as she slept. Later it was the impending leap from an airplane, with all of its danger and exhalation.
So there is music and drama in this latest Opera Carolina production – and poetry as well.