Thick Description Theatre Company
San Francisco Conservatory Chorus & Chamber Ensemble
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
The story of Firebird Motel is, in its essence, a perfectly normal opera story. The setting, which provides the title of the opera, is the center for a traditional “boy meets hooker” love story which we as opera-goers have come to expect (gross generalization, of course, with all apologies to Mr. Yezzi). Our tenor is Ivan, the night clerk of the motel. Our hooker is Corina. It should go without saying that Corina is a soprano, but I say it anyway. Other characters include Nova, a longtime resident of the Firebird (mezzo), the Trooper (baritone) who dogs (quite literally) Corina, and Julie the original romantic interest of Ivan who disappeared in the desert as appears as a disembodied voice. Corina wants to get away from the Trooper, falls for Ivan, has a confrontation with the Trooper, and hilarity ensues. I won’t give away the ending, but you can probably guess what happens.
Mr. Conte pays great attention to melodic vocal writing and that is the main reason we listen to opera. A bad libretto is like bone disease and Mr. Yezzi’s libretto provides sufficient interest and detail to what could be a stock opera plot. The motivations of the characters seem justified and the emotional outburts of arias happen at the right times.
Listening to this makes me think of Copland, Rorem, and Floyd (Carlisle, not Pink). The action and plot-churning portions of the libretto are effectively handled without seeming too removed from the meaty arias. I have found myself whistling the tune to Corina’s first aria “Hear the wind tonight” on more than one occasion recently. I also laud the implementation of the chorus, used to sing hymn tunes whenever Ivan turns on the radio. It is a great way to use a chorus while maintaining the small cast (fitting with the desolate desert setting). Any other use of the chorus would have felt forced.
The instrumental group of violin, cello, bass, clarinet, and piano supports the singers well without overpowering and does not grow stagnant to my ears as the hour is up. The instruments get their own moments in the sun but, as it should be, the voices are the prominent sounds.
My only quibble come from the impression I get from the CD artwork. Firebird Motel contains expressionistic-inspired stills which led me to certain expectations of the musical language. I originally thought that the piece would be more surreal and dark and was surprised at its rather conservative musical vocabulary. My expectations were mistaken and in a good way. The lyricism of Firebird Motel provides just the right balance between the desolate setting and the hopes and dreams of the characters. Is it as dark as, say, Jenufa? The answer is no. But drowning a newborn child in a frozen lake is a heckuva lot darker than shooting a cop (oops, I gave away the ending). At the end of the day, Firebird Motel is a solidly constructed one-act opera that singers should enjoy singing and audience should enjoy hearing.