Review: ‘To Damascus’

Jan. 19, Firehouse Theatre

“To Damascus” by the Richmond composer Walter Braxton, receiving its premiere over the next two weekends, is billed as an opera. It might better be described as a staged narrative song cycle whose narrative is elusive. (“Make you own meaning,” advises Joel Bassin, Firehouse Theatre’s producing artistic director and director of this production.)

As the title portends, the work’s text hinges largely on scripture (Psalms, mainly), liturgy and religious or spiritually infused poetry. It is staged in layered visual symbolism, some of it transparent – we are travelers; see our luggage? – more of it implied or outright opaque.

Five singer-actors, three principal, two supporting, are constantly in stylized motion, at work on mundane but somehow resonant chores – lacing shoes, folding clothes, sorting papers, preparing meals – usually while singing long-lined melodies that come across as soliloquies.

Musically, it’s useful to know that Braxton was a student of Robert Ward, the North Carolina-based composer whose work was informed by the mid-20th century American-romantic school whose best-known figure was Samuel Barber.

From start to finish, “To Damascus” calls to mind Barber’s “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” in its tone of bittersweet wistfulness, its mildly sultry applications of tone color and its porch-swing andantino tempo. “Knoxville” clocks in at 16 minutes or so; if it were much longer, it would grow tedious.

“To Damascus” is much longer – about an hour and a half of slow-to-medium tempos with little rhythmic variation outside of a couple of waltzes.

Some turbulent emotions are at play not far beneath the surface of this work, but they’re never let loose.

Dramatically and musically, the piece peaks in a second act with the Kyrie and Gloria of the Catholic Mass at its core, framed by rather troubling visual effects.

The voices – tenor Michael David Gray, soprano Michele Baez and baritone Chase Peak as principals, with Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy and Imani Thaniel joining ensembles – were very fine, technically and expressively, singly and collectively, in the Jan. 19 performance. In this intimate theater space, Gray and Peak projected their texts effectively. In Baez’s very high-riding soprano part, tone inevitably trumped words.

Conductor Michael Knowles, leading a chamber orchestra of strings, winds and keyboard, kept things moving at Braxton’s prescribed pace.

The composer plays a recurrent cameo role, starting and ending each of three acts with a flourish at a light switch, periodically shaking heads with and embracing cast members.

Walter Braxton’s “To Damascus” repeats at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 4 p.m. Jan. 21 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-27 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. in Richmond. Tickets: $40. Details: (804) 355-2001; http://firehousetheatre.org

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