Performing Arts

Opera review: UM Frost’s ‘Jackie O’ is a wild, satisfying ride

Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O is a postmodern synthesis of American popular culture and avant-garde modernism. The University of Miami Frost Opera Theater’s production of Daugherty’s opera, which opened Thursday at Gusman Concert Hall, is brilliantly realized and arrestingly staged.

Daugherty has received widespread attention for his instrumental scores based on such American pop culture icons as Superman and Elvis Presley, but he has a more reflective side as well. His luminous song cycle Labyrinth of Love, settings of eight love poems spanning several centuries, was a highlight of last fall’s Festival Miami. Daugherty’s 1997 opera mixes the composer’s duo artistic impulses in an original and constantly surprising manner.

Rather than a linear biographical narrative, the opera presents events in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the context of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s. Such tabloid figures as Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Maria Callas (Aristotle Onassis' former lover) are cast in imaginary encounters and conversations with the heroine. Wayne Koestenbaum has created a stunningly creative libretto, an amalgam of Gertrude Stein and Bertolt Brecht, replete with irony, sarcasm and pathos.

Daugherty’s multilayered score matches Koestenbaum’s wild creative flights. The elegiac solo cello theme that opens and closes the score is a leitmotif for the heroine. This dark suggestion of tragedy is juxtaposed against the pop sensibility of the opening scene, a party of New York’s cultural glitterati at Warhol’s loft.

Onassis’ seduction tango has more than a touch of Greek folk flavoring, and his alcoholic anthem It’s Never Too Late for a Stiff Drink is unabashed ’60s rock. Gradually the music becomes more austere, as with the Flame Duet between Jackie and Callas, bracing in its astringent harmonics. Only I Will Meet You at the Lido, a catchy duet for Callas and Onassis, seems miscalculated, delaying the climactic scenes for a production number.

Ben Krywosz’s multimedia production, enhanced by projections of color patterns and news headlines and photos of Jackie throughout her life, is marvelously vibrant and effective, and Anne Kuite’s high-energy choreography was brilliantly executed by the principals and ensemble. Johnson’s leadership of Daugherty’s complex brew is masterful, the Frost Symphony Orchestra members’ playing both subtle and jolting in leaping rhythms and harmonics.

On opening night of this double-cast production, Vindhya Khare was every inch the heroine, exuding elegance, glamour and mystery. Her rich, agile soprano was radiant in duet with the Callas of Mia Rojas. Rojas cut a tragic figure as the jilted diva, with a dark timbre and potent dramatic projection. Max Moreno was an arrogant Onassis with a virile baritone to match, his low tones chilling as he uttered “Jackie, you are the Angel of Death” after hearing that his son has died.

Carl Du Pont’s mellow baritone encompassed Warhol’s Artist Credo, and Hilary Trumpler assayed Liz Taylor’s bluesy cadenzas brilliantly. Jennifer Voigt’s light soprano and beauty made Grace Kelly’s party appearance more than a cameo. Special kudos for Ryan P. Townsend’s clear, high tenor as the offstage voice of Kennedy asking Jackie’s forgiveness.

This uniquely entertaining and emotionally powerful work offers a compelling evening of music theater and a high water mark for Frost Opera Theater and its director Alan Johnson.

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