The University of Texas’ Butler Opera Center staged the first production of its season — the musically intriguing if somewhat dramatically turgid opera “A Woman in Morocco,” by Daron Hagen.
Directed by Robert DeSimone with conductor Kelly Kuo leading an energetic and expressive chamber orchestra, “A Woman in Morocco” spins a complicated tale spun over two fast-paced acts.
It was the vocal talent that shown.
Lizzy (soprano Natalie Cummings) is a young American aspiring travel writer in the 1950s, who lands in Morocco, only to be immediately distracted by innkeeper Ahmed (tenor Soonchan Kwon) and his downtrodden wife Asilah (soprano Samantha Leibowitz) and their convoluted and corrupt back story. Expat American inn owner Teddy (baritone Austin Bradley) adds even more sinister machinations to the plot with allusions to human trafficking.
Weeks pass and then Lizzy’s sister Claire (soprano Olivia Douglas) arrives looking for her sibling and accompanied by a somewhat shifty American business man Harry (baritone Chance Eakin).
Hagen’s multilayered score shifts nimbly and deftly, never foresaking tonality though unafraid to employ some modernist expressionism or minimalist simplicity when needed.
In numerous vocal ensemble moments — intriguingly presented at times with some singers offstage accompanying onstage singers — Hagen offered shimmering, lyrically rich sounds.
As Lizzy and Claire, respectively, sopranos Cummings and Douglas had lush, full-bodied and beautiful tone, while as Asilah, Leibowitz demonstrated a piercing clarity.
Likewise Eakin, as the evasive Harry, had clear, warm-sounding tone, and was the best at tieing the music to his dramatic role.
“A Woman in Morocco” is based on an unproduced play of the same name by Barbara Grecki, a writer with whom Hagen has collaborated on four other operas, including “New York Stories” which the Butler Opera Center performed in 2012. As they did with that opera, Hagen and Grecki collaborated on the libretto for “A Woman in Morocco.”
UT, in fact, is no stranger to the composer’s work: Hagen’s “Bandanna” had its premiere here in 1999.
For “A Woman in Morocco,” scenic designer Richard Isackes shoehorns on to the stage a hotel room, a courtyard cafe and several large architectural elements of Islamic design in essentially a realistic style.
And yet Grecki’s story line bogs down the opera. A lack of nuance leads to characterizations (a mysterious and untrustworthy Arab, a bumbling and naive American woman, a sexually shiftless gay man) that border on stereotypes and skid dangerously close to be culturally off-putting.
Still, UT’s production spotlights some impressive young vocal talents in some moments of wonderful new operatic music.