Curtis Opera Theatre presents a double bill in celebration of Mother’s Day at the Perelman Theater

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

Curtis Institute of Music and Curtis Opera Theatre in partnership with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts presented an opera double bill at the Perelman Theater May 2 through May 5. The double bill consisted of Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams, after the play by John Millington Synge, and Empty the House by Rene Orth with libretto by Mark Campbell.  The two operas had as a theme mothers, one being good, the other evil, and the ways they dealt with their sons’ deaths.


Riders to the Sea is a drama written in 1904 by the esteemed Irish playwright John Millington Synge. It was set into an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams years later, having its premiere in 1937. Its plot centers about an unlucky family living off the western shore of Ireland whose male members have either perished by drowning or are destined to be drowned. The action of the opera is principally forwarded by three women: a mother named Maurya and her two daughters, Nora and Cathleen. According to the published cast list, Nora was sung by Sage DeAgro-Ruopp, Cathleen, Olivia Smith, and Maurya, by Emily Damasco. Patrick Wilhelm was Bartley, the remaining son. Daniela Candillari conducted the apparently unnamed and uncredited opera orchestra, which will hereafter be called the Curtis Opera Theatre Orchestra. Maestro Candillari and the Curtis Opera Theatre Orchestra played the Vaughan Williams score beautifully with the appropriate touch of drama the piece required. However, the three women were totally out of their element both in their acting and singing. Maestro Candillari tried her best to hold down the orchestra for the three fragile voices, but it was akin to controlling the sea to protect three dinghies in a storm.  Patrick Wilhelm made the most of his small role. Director Mary Birnbaum also encouraged her actors to use broad Irish diction which further puzzled the listener. Thankfully, there were supertitles. Scenic Designer Grace Laubacher had an appropriately depressing cottage stage set. At the end of the opera, the set immediately segued into the next opera, Empty the House. There was a lovely storm interlude, perhaps courtesy of Anshuman Bhatia, lighting designer.


Empty the House is a work by Rene Orth, composer in residence at Opera Philadelphia. She enjoyed a libretto by the esteemed Mark Campbell. Mr. Campbell made his characters come alive with intense characterization and stylish writing. Empty the House had a cast of three: Faith (Sophia Hunt), Brenda (Tiffany Townsend), and Paul (Dennis Chmelensky). Set in 1995, in Houston, Texas, the story deals with the monstrous mother who locked her daughter away in the dark basement while she worked. Her daughter Faith, for some reason, has returned to help Brenda pack up the house for her to relocate to retirement living. Faith has not seen Brenda for a decade, the principal reason being because of Paul.  Mr. Chmelensky as Paul appeared briefly both in flashbacks and as a ghost in present time. He sang well and with grace. We learn that Paul was bashed at school for being gay, and left as soon as he could. We also learn that Paul contracted AIDS from his boyfriend. Paul sought refuge from his mother, Brenda, after his boyfriend’s death and was turned away. He spent his last weeks with his sister. Why after the horror of that did Faith return to her horrible mother is anyone’s guess. The libretto argues for mom as victim, even though she appears to be self-centered, egotistical, miserly, unkind, and narcissistic.


The background sound by Ms. Orth was often engaging. The singers had good technical command. Unlike the singers in the first opera they could be heard. But both Ms. Hunt and Ms. Townsend screamed their multiple climaxes at the tops of their lungs, which after a dozen times became extremely wearing. There were dozens more. Their countless ear-piercing shrieks were unbearable. Can one fault the maestro, the director, or the composer? Only the singers know for sure.


Curtis continues with Curtis Summerfest, five concerts performed throughout the summer. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased at or by phone at 215-893-7902.





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