Jake Heggie’s IF I WERE YOU Is A Loser

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday August 06, 2019 - 11:07:00 AM

For the first time in its 60 year existence, the Merola Opera Program commissioned a new work, and they chose San Franciscos own Jake Heggie to compose a new opera. Heggie teamed up once again with librettist Gene Scheer, with whom he had worked, most notably, on Moby Dick. Together, Heggie and Scheer decided to do a loose adaptation of Julien Greens 1947 French novel Si j’étais vous/If I Were You. The plot involves a young man, Fabian Hart, who, like Goethes Faust, makes a pact with the devil. This devil, however, is a woman who goes by the name Brittomara; and what she offers young Fabian is the opportunity to transfer his soul into anyone he chooses, thereby ridding himself of his own identity and assuming a new one each time he makes a transfer. The problem is, however, that, unlike Goethes Faust, who ambitiously sought to know everything and to make the world a better place, young Fabian seems to know nothing. He is, as Joshua Kosman called him, a numbskull. 

In If I Were You, we first see Fabian in an ambulance after he has driven his car into a tree. He has suffered a head injury. But Brittomara is by his side, disguised as an EMT. She assures Fabian she wont let him die, and she administers electro-shock to him. Fabian survives, but he has little memory of what happened. Its not a very auspicious start to an opera. Moreover, the music Jake Heggie has composed for this opera is, for the most part, very angular and dissonant, full of vocal screeching. This is a shame, because Merolas current crop of young singers is excellent; and they do their best to make this weird, diabolical opera work. I saw the first cast, or Pearlcast, on Sunday, August 4, at Herbst Theatre. In the role of Brittomara a role that also involves this character in shifting identities mezzo-soprano Cara Collins was superb. Among other things, she can screech with the best of them. As Fabian Hart, tenor Michael Day was vocally impressive, even if his numbskullcharacter was distinctly unimpressive. As Diana a character that does not appear in Julien Greens novel but was added by librettist Scheer soprano Esther Tonea was outstanding. The purpose of adding the character of Diana was to create a love interestfor Fabian that, so hoped Scheer and Heggie, would help ground the diabolical plot in something like everyday reality.  

But this pact with the devil has a bizarre slant of Eastern mysticism that goes along with it, for each time Fabian wishes to transfer his soul to another body and person, he must chant a palindrome of Hindu gods, a sort of abracadabra that musically is accompanied by a buzz of electro-shock and a visual array of lightning bolts. So much for everyday reality. Fabians first soul-shifting transfer is to assume the identity of Mr. Putnam, his oppressive boss at work. Mr. Putnams music, by the way, is vulgar and raucous, suggesting perhaps that Fabians choice is lacking in wisdom. Fabian next assumes the identity of Paul, a macho guy in a bar. But Paul is hardly a good choice either, for in his jacket other characters find cocaine and a gun. When the gun goes off and accidentally kills a tipsy Rachel, Paul calls the police. But when the policeman arrives and starts to question Paul, our Paul/Fabian simply chants the magic formula and becomes the cop. Oh well, what can you expect from a numbskull? 

There is, however, one bit of music that I found quite melodious. Diana, sung by soprano Esther Tonea, performed a duet with her best fried, Selena, sung by soprano Patricia Westley. The two soprano voices blended together beautifully. This duet takes place in the bar scene in Act I, and it was quite lovely. As Fabian continues to assume the identities of others, there were capable vocal performances from Rafael Porto, Timothy Murray, Edward Laurenson, and Brandon Scott Russell. However, we the audience dont give a damn about any of these characters, any more than we give a damn about this loser, Fabian. Ultimately, we wonder what Diana, the one seemingly well-grounded person in this opera, sees in Fabian? Why does she care about him and seek to find out what has happened to him? Is this just a plot-ploy to keep the story moving? In the end, she holds the dying Fabian in her arms. But Brittomara comes to claim Fabians soul; and the last words of If I Were You are Brittomaras: Who will be next? 

Nicole Paiement conducted energetically; and the sets by Liliana Duque Piñeriro were expressive. Keturah Stickann kept things moving as Director. IF I Were You will receive a fourth and final performance, with the alternating Emeraldcast, on Tuesday, August 6, at 7:30 pm at Herbst Theatre.