PROVO — It’s not everyday you get a world premier of a new opera. It’s also not everyday that you get a new chamber opera with such unique elements as BYUArt’s production of Baucis and Philemon. The opera is produced as a staged concert with singers and instrumentalists sharing the stage together. While this was performed live in October 2023, there is currently a recording of the opera on the composer’s YouTube channel.
Composer Steven Ricks and librettist Stephen Tuttle have taken a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses regarding an elderly married couple who welcome two gods disguised as peasants into their home. Since they are the only people in town who took pity on them, they are spared by the gods from the town’s destruction. After climbing to the top of a mountain, the town is destroyed, their cottage is converted into an ornate temple and the couple express their wish to die together when the time comes. At their deaths they are transformed into a pair of intertwining trees, an oak and a linden tree. The opera takes up once they have been converted into trees.
Director Shea Owens, who also performs Philemon, has created a unique space, centermost of which is a metal tree sculptures by Brian Christensen. These play a spectacular role in the latter part of the opera. The roles of Baucis (Madison Leonard) and Philemon (Owens) enter through the audience and are dressed in rich green clothing with appropriate woodland headdresses to represent them as trees. The makeup and hair for these characters was designed by Margie Johnson, and is effective, however, I wish the headwear for Philemon had been less intrusive on his face, as it made it difficult to see and read the facial expressions of Owens for his character. Included in the production are various sound cues to represent nature and the changing seasons. These were performed by Steven Ricks, but at times, at least on the recording I viewed, they were louder than the instrumentalists and made it hard to hear the music. The opera opens and closes with animated sequences projected on the backdrop. These are effective in setting up the story and putting a final close to the lives of Baucis and Philemon.
For me the real stand out was the penultimate section of the opera called “The Hidden Lives of Trees.” The percussionist, Matt Coleman, performs this section by striking the branches of the metal tree with mallets with added wind sounds and live effects. It is a most unusual and strangely satisfying addition to the opera.
While this opera may not appeal to everyone, it was a very enjoyable experience with extremely talented performers. Owens and Leonard have extremely well-trained voices and perform their roles with great skill. It may not be the top of your playlist, but this is enjoyable and well worth watching.