Review: ‘Julie, Monster’

(Updated Dec. 12)

RVA Baroque
PJ Freebourn directing

Dec. 3, Firehouse Theatre
(reviewed from online stream, posted Dec. 4)

“Julie, Monster: a Queer Baroque Opera” is queer in both common meanings of the word. Its principal characters are omnisexual in practice, homosexual at heart. Musically, it’s a queer mix of contrasting, colliding genres – early baroque liberally garnished with Renaissance dance, with 21st-century electronica, rave/house beats and pop/soul balladry in hot pursuit.

Composer Niccolo Seligmann hews closely to the standard format of French baroque music theater: recitatives leading into arias or duets – mostly, soliloquies of stylized emotive affect – sprinkled with dance sequences, and choruses or more dances to punctuate scenes. Unlike standard baroque opera, though, this isn’t a toga party. Instead of a figure from mythology or ancient history, this opera’s subject was a real person living in the late 1600s.

The antique theatrical chassis proves to be load-bearing and roadworthy, handling the show’s whiplash swerves in musical style and century-hopping lane changes in lingo and attitude.

Raphael Seligmann’s libretto swings from earnest to raucous and back. In his text, the decorous late-17th century and a funky/glitzy old/new day, populated by roguish party animals and brawlers, cohabit with less dissonance than might be expected. (Every era is baroque in its own way.) Issues of sexual and gender equity are addressed sincerely, at times soulfully; but a bypass into activist agitprop late in the show needlessly sticks a pin in a message already received.

In its premiere production, presented in a small playhouse on a limited budget, “Julie, Monster” was bare-bones visually, staged on a set of boxy modules and empty frames, with costumes only vaguely recalling the extravagant fashion of the Bourbon Sun King’s Versailles court, while more authentically dressing lowborn subjects in humbler haunts. Some canny lighting provided visual depth and variety.

The RVA Baroque ensemble, appearing to number about a half-dozen musicians, was similarly lean, audibly attuned to period musical style, although not always in tune. Electronic musical and sound effects overbalanced the live players, at least in the online stream’s audio mix; but the humans never quite dissolved in a sonic stew.

The singers carried the show. As Julie d’Aubigny, a combative (“monster”) vagabond singer and grifter turned scandalous, deeply troubled Parisian diva, Jaylin Brown was a commanding, brooding presence with considerable vocal flexibility – essential in a character whose voice must range from coloratura soprano to classic-R&B singer to Caribbean chanteuse.

Two other female voices stood out: Margaret Taylor-Woods as Marie-Thérèse, Julie’s later-in-life soulmate, paired with Brown in moving death-scene duets, and Libby Mullins, in the cameo role of a boy soprano.

Countertenor Ambrose Oisín Clark was impressive in voice and character as Thevenard.

James Brown’s experience in opera was parlayed into a period-stylishly affective portrayal of King Louis XIV. Keydron Dunn (as Gautier), Kenny Putnam (as Buzzy Rambutin) and Levi Meerovich (as Sérannes) wisely refrained from trying to sound baroque-operatic in their roles, instead reaching for their characters’ dramatic potential while usually standing one step back in a story that focuses on women.

In this production, a cast of 18 portrayed nearly three dozen characters. Many took on quite dissimilar roles: James Brown, for example, doubled as the king and a waiter. The supporting cast was vocally uneven but maintained physical presence and energy – even doing extra duty in passable renditions of early baroque dance.

Baroque opera was meant to be visual spectacle as much as music. Spectacle necessarily got short shrift in this production, and the music’s frequent shifts in style challenged continuity and consistency of performance.

“Julie, Monster” shows enticing promise, but would benefit from revision – common practice after a premiere. If the Seligmanns purged some dead spots (one less blackout-with-pavane, for starters), mitigated abrupt transitions (or gave them more dramatically potent abruptness), and found the resources to stage a full-dress, more consistently cast, vocally and instrumentally balanced, technically sophisticated production, the show would stand on strong legs.

A repeat performance, at 2 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Firehouse Theater, 1609 W. Broad St. in Richmond, is sold out.

(Correction: Ambrose Oisín Clark was misidentified in the initial posting of the review.)

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