Evening in the key of Woolf

Special to The Times

Long Beach Opera is known for doing things differently, but its presentation of "Freshwater" was a complete departure, as neither Long Beach nor opera played a part in the proceedings.

Abandoning the Carpenter Performing Arts Center and operatic repertoire, the opera company took up residency at the Getty Center over the weekend to put on a sort of Victorian multimedia presentation: a little verse, a little song and some genial play-acting -- all loosely connected with Virginia Woolf.

The first half of the evening Friday was a staging of Woolf's sole dramatic work, a 1923 amusement titled "Freshwater: A Comedy." The play takes place on the Isle of Wight during the 1860s and features such characters as poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (Woolf's great-aunt and, conveniently, the subject of an excellent retrospective at the Getty).

The one-act piece may have been charming as after-dinner entertainment in a Russell Square parlor, but on a proper stage, it feels like a collegiate skit. For those who wish to see Woolf with her proverbial hair down -- the play contains randy chambermaids, wet-dream jokes and a stuffed chimpanzee -- this is a rare opportunity. For those who like good theater (or opera, for that matter), it's a rough slog.

The second half of the evening was a recital of sorts featuring the music of Rebecca Clarke, a celebrated British violist and occasional composer of chamber works. Clarke, a contemporary of Woolf, met the famous writer just once -- but that brief encounter inspired director Isabel Milenski to pair the two's work in "Freshwater."

The set of the play remained in place for the recital, and during Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano, the cast of "Freshwater" sat onstage in costume. For the first movement, the actors merely listened as Gina Warnick played briskly, giving Clarke's shanty-esque melodies a rough, salty tang. Warnick and her accompanist relied on sheet music, which might have caused the lack of cohesiveness between the two instruments, but Clarke's faux-Brahms score might have been the real culprit.

Milenski attempted to liven up the music by having the cast dance along with the jig-like second movement. If this weren't enough of a distraction, during the final movement, a rather acrobatic snogging session developed, culminating in two characters making out under the sofa. For the actors and musicians -- and the audience -- it was all rather embarrassing.

Thankfully, the stage was cleared for the vocal portion of the recital. Soloist Donna Balson, an Australian soprano making her local debut, sang five songs, each delivered with great poise and excellent diction. The acoustics of the lecture hall were not ideal, but it was clear that she has a bright, expressive voice.

In her final two songs, Balson shined as Clarke's music gave her the chance to sing and act. They almost sounded like arias. Let's hope that Long Beach and Balson's next collaboration will be a true opera. It appears it's what they do best.

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