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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Gunning for You

The Long Walk, Opera Saratoga

AS BRIAN CASTNER and three of his fellow Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists are driving back to base from yet another mission while deployed in Iraq, the tension of the moment is jolted by a pigeon. It lands on their Humvee. Over the orchestra’s rumbles and squeals, the quartet sings in beautiful close harmony about the nature of their relationship. This is, says one, the place where he belongs.

Daniel Belcher and
Heather Johnson
Back home in Buffalo, Castner still perceives danger, and the first act of The Long Walk ends with the image of him sitting at the top of the stairs of his house, cradling his AK-47, guarding his children from—what?

Adapted from a memoir by Castner, the opera—receiving its world premiere with these Opera Saratoga performances—is a shattering, very moving portrait of mental imbalance, right up there with Wozzeck in its use of music and lyrics and the tools of theater to explore the contrasting, contradictory facets of a war-damaged soldier.

Like Wozzeck, it’s episodic and makes intelligent use of musical form. But where you might expect again an atonal approach, The Long Walk is surprisingly lyrical, with solo moments suggestive of late Strauss.

Baritone Daniel Belcher, in the role of a lifetime, is Castner, a pleasant-looking average Joe who is running as we meet him, running, he explains, through the is to escape the was. Not that there’s any escape.

His wife, Jessie (the magnificent mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson), has a bittersweet entrance in which she notes that her grandparents suffered post-war trauma—her grandfather never really returned from battle, and his death, a few post-war years later, clearly was the result of mental trauma.

Yet it’s an ironically endearing number, with Fleischmann’s simple, direct lyrics floating on a bed of a Beck’s spare melody. A memorable tune would be distracting here. The music does what music does best, making an immediate emotional connection.

Some of the parallels between Castner’s two lives seem too pat to be true: Jessie urges one of the boys to eat his carrots with a count-to-ten threat as Brian recalls the countdown that spared the lives of some Iraqi children; as he dresses his son in hockey gear, he flashes to the process of suiting fellow-soldier Castleman in a protective Kevlar body suit. But the parallels are effective thanks both to the skillful musical setting and the sure direction of David Schweizer, who lets such moments speak for themselves even as he keeps the action flowing not only from one time and place to another but also in and out of Castner’s states of mind.

“There are two of me now,” Brian declares. “The Crazy and the Other,” and the second act seeks the possibility of a reconciliation between them. He visits a Shrink (soprano Caroline Worra), who seems less interested in helping him than in finding the right pigeonhole for his madness. He tries yoga for soldiers, each position a memory trigger. He panics when about to board an airplane home from a sales trip, but Jessie is able to sooth him by offering the positive memories he can’t seem to retain, and it’s this bonding that ultimately brings him home in many respects.

Worra, by the way, is a comforting presence in a piece like this. She also sings the roles of Brian’s sister and a keening Iraqi woman, giving them distinct characterizations aided by her can-do-anything voice. She must be fond of contemporary works: we’ve seen her triumph locally in The Mines of Sulphur and The Greater Good, among other operas.

The Long Walk has an outstanding cast in general, particularly in Erich Schuett, Robert Wesley Hill, and Henry Wager, who play the Castners’ three sons. Their voices are excellent, their characterizations compellingly believable. When Hill (as Virgil) blurts out his wish that his father wouldn’t come home from work, the pain is palpable.

Justin Hopkins, Javier Abreu, and David Blalock are Brian’s fellow soldiers, and they display the easygoing, tension-laden relationship that wartime bonding brings. And their ensemble numbers are beautifully done.

The small orchestra also sported a pair of electric guitars that are used so appropriately that they should become part of every such ensemble. Conductor Steven Osgood guided them through this rich, challenging score.

The Long Walk is a masterpiece, a story that needs to be told in a form that needs to be used in this manner. Live theater is never as compelling as when music is a part of it; a piece like this brings out all the best aspects of opera.

The Long Walk
Music by Jeremy Howard Beck; libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, based on the memoir by Brian Castner, conducted by Steven Osgood, directed by David Schweizer, Opera Saratoga, Spa Little Theatre, July 13

Metroland Magazine, 16 July 2015

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