Chicago Theatre Review
The Chamber Opera “Joseph’s Gift” Imagines the Second Father’s Love Story
Joseph’s Gift Opera – St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
Jesus’ surrogate father gets short shrift in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, right up to the crucifixion. The miracle of the virgin birth elevates Mary to a mystical position in the life of the father of Christianity that is, perhaps, understandable in comparison. After all, Joseph’s contribution seems to merely have been acceptance of a vision singing the song that he shouldn’t fear to take Mary as his wife, and then (we assume) performing the sort of tasks asked of a more traditional father.
Whatever the confusion over Roman taxation, or Joseph’s determination to return to his family, he led his heavily pregnant wife to Bethlehem, where the prophesy could be answered for Jesus’ stable-manager birth. Assumptions can be made of Joseph’s parenting of his half-son, championing his early career as a carpenter, and seeing to his religious education. But Joseph seemed to have little to do with the later spiritual elevation of his son, and to all reports wasn’t present at his crucifixion or ascension. What, then, do we make of this nearly-missing father, the man who risked external and internal ridicule to answer a vision’s melody?
Who was the common law father of Christianity’s Son of God?
Francis L. Lynch’s Christmas opera “Joseph’s Gift,’ with libretto by the composer and Doris J. Reeser, spins a warm story telling of the possibilities of the birth of the Christ Child as seen from the nearly historically erased earthly father’s perspective. From the simple beginnings of a too-long unmarried, shy man who accepts a marriage arranged by mutual friends, he traverses a journey that finds him pleading to give all at his disposal to persuade a Roman centurion to allow him passage to be present at the birth of this son, shared by his God and himself. We discover that Joseph is given not a single gift, but a rich bounty; Joseph discovers himself, learning that love is acceptance for both himself and others, discovers the sweet sharing of devotion that lies in us all (if we sweep the dirt of sinful distraction away), and the miraculous gift of being present at the birth of a child who will be the father of Christians everywhere, who will warm his life and home with a singularity that can never be experienced elsewhere in the universe.
Joseph’s Gift? Joseph’s GIFTS, I would say. Suffice it to say that Lynch and Reeser have gifted us a new Christmas story, in a Christian world that may have thought we’d said all there was to say.
Lynch’s orchestral sense is melodic in choral structure while enjoying surprisingly complicated and pleasing rhythmical underpinnings. His gentle leitmotifs present a temperate support for each character, or enlighten connected plot points. Lynch’s choral writing is some of the most masterful I have heard in the considerable contemporary operas I have had the pleasure of enjoying in Chicago’s rich musical scene in past years, with more complicated harmonies, alternately exciting, and soothing. The piece holds together by a sense of the rocking of a cradle, and I was often moved to tears by the story and score’s collective messages. .
Baritone Zachary Angus displayed a earnest and spinning instrument as the title character, caressing every phrase as Joseph’s soul dared to enter the necessarily faith-based unprecedented. Hillary Esqueda demonstrated an appropriately serene presence, with a flowing and pitch-perfect voice that sets the bar high for any soprano undertaking this role in the future. Tenors Ricky Feng Nan (Aaron) and Karlos Piñero-Mercado (Cornelius) exhibited bright, easy, bell-like tenors, and are young artists who bear watching. As the Narrators, Alexandra Kassouf, Mallory Harding, Nicholas Metzger, and Ian McGuffin were simply fantastic, and Lynch’s harmonic writing for the quartet was just right in every way, at every moment. I enjoyed both the voice and theatrical sensibility of Ivo Suarez (Quintus), although I did not find his voice to indicate the calling of a bass-baritone; I hope he will consider the exploration of a higher fach. One of my favorite characters was created by mezzo-soprano Angela Torres-Kutkuhn (Seeress). It was impossible to take my eyes off Torres-Kutkuhn whenever she was onstage, and her chocolate-colored voice always pleased, whether in admonishment or exposition. It was unfortunate that the scoring of much of her singing seemed to rest in an unreasonable tessitura.
Music Director/Conductor James Janssen kept the troops in together, no easy task as the orchestra of twenty-one was necessarily behind the action. Always sensitive to both Lynch’s writing and to the breathing of the singers, much of the success of the evening must be attributed to Janssen.
I must believe that the frequent wandering of many of the principals was due to lack of rehearsal, the confinement of the small space at the front of Evanston’s lovely St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, and/or a lack of trust in the music that Lynch gifted them between their written phrases, leaving room for emotional continuation of character when even the singing voice is not enough. The finest composers cannot help but write the psychological progression of the characters, and performers do well to learn those melodies and choral progression just as well as their vocal parts, for these musical musings sometimes tell more than words can impart.
It is my fond hope that Lynch and Resser will continue to hone what I experienced as an opera that could enjoy repeated and beloved productions all over the country. Since Lynch’s choral writing is so thrilling, I would love to hear an introductory chorus number that would invite me into the world of the Nazareth. I wish I could have spent more musical and dramatic time with both Joseph and Mary, learning about their lives and passions before they met, so I could have fallen in love with them, and then have fallen in love with their union all over again. It would have been dramatically useful if I could have heard about the Roman taxation, and the national struggles that precipitated the confrontation at the gates to Bethlehem in Scene 2 of the piece during Scene 1.
My hopes for future collaboration aside, this is a family entertainment that will bring breathless joy to young children, and provide the more mature folks with food for soulful contemplation. Don’t miss a chance to meet the family’s first carpenter.
Reviewed by Aaron Hunt
Presented December 10-December 11 by Francis L. Lynch at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church at 2120 Lincoln Street, Evanston.
Tickets are available by going to going to www.josephsgiftopera.org/tickets.html.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.josephsgiftopera.org.