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John Lamb, Published March 29 2014

Review: FM Opera delivers scary good Poe-inspired premieres

FARGO – With world premieres of two operas, it was understandable for those producing “Buried Alive” and “Embedded” to be on edge at Friday night’s Fargo-Moorhead Opera performance. But it was the audience on the edge of their seats for the delightfully dark double feature.

The two works, inspired by the gothic writings of Edgar Allan Poe, delivered chills, and the six visiting singers supplied the thrills.

Both works in “The Poe Project” may spring from the same seed, but on stage they are vastly different. Jeff Myers’ creepy score for “Buried Alive” is more atmospheric, setting the tone for the nightmarish tale of a man who wakes up (or does he?) in a morgue. Quincy Long’s libretto keeps the audience – and the main character – guessing what is real and what is a dream.

A talented artist, Victor is tormented by his own painting, eerily brought to life by projection designer S. Katy Tucker, whose 12 TV screens above the stage add to the surrealistic unease.

Victor’s nightmare may be downright dreamy for some as baritone Christopher Burchett spends almost the entire 45-minute performance shirtless. As hunky as he is, his ability to sing lying on a slab in the morgue is even more impressive.

Both productions sex up Poe quite a bit, making the shows unsuitable for kids. For adults, however, it’s quite fun and Jennifer Feinstein has the most fun with her sultry turn as a flirty Death.

Director Lawrence Edelson’s depiction of the burial ends the production on a fabulously colorful note. Unfortunately it was a sour note for the chamber orchestra, which got clouded in ashes and dust.

Director Sam Helfrich’s staging of “Embedded” is a vibrant bit of contemporary noir.

Caroline Worra plays a veteran TV news anchor, Sylvia Malow, who feels pushed aside for the eager, younger reporter Victoria Reilly, wonderfully vamped up by Sara Gartland. Desperate to maintain her position and youth, Malow makes a date with the devil, terrorist Montressor, suavely embodied by baritone Nathan Stark.

“Embedded” was written with Worra in mind, and she nailed the night’s finest performance, receiving –deservedly – a mid-show ovation for her aria on aging and body image.

Deborah Brevoort’s wickedly sharp and fiendishly funny libretto is as engaging as it is entertaining, smartly commenting on society’s obsession with appearance and fame.

Patrick Soluri’s score is the more traditional in “The Poe Project,” but brilliantly weaves in modern touches, like the spot-on send up of a TV news show’s theme.

Though Worra is the star, she almost needs to share co-billing with Tucker’s video work, Zane Pihlstrom’s set and costume design and Josh Epstein’s lighting, which don’t just set the tone, they bring the stage to life – and death.

If there was one bad note in the production, it was the physical limitations of Festival Concert Hall. Without a theatrical rigging system, supports were set at the front of the stage to help hold the TVs and additional lights. A world-class performance like this deserves a better performing arts center.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533