World Premiere of ‘Grounded’ Opens WNO Season
By November 2, 2023 0 518•
It made sense for “Grounded,” a Metropolitan Opera commission, to have its world premiere in Pentagon-adjacent Washington, D.C. Opening in the Kennedy Center Opera House on Oct. 28, the show launched Washington National Opera’s 2023-24 season.
“Grounded” was a crowd-pleaser on opening night. The audience applauded when the curtain rose on a chorus of Air Force pilots bathed in blue light on a suspended platform, clouds rushing away behind them on a giant LED screen. When the pilots sang “F-16s are climbin’ high,” it felt like “Top Gun: The Opera.”
Instead of Maverick, the hero is Jess: young, Toronto-born mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo in a short haircut. (Later on, there is a “G.I. Jane” joke, but nobody gets slapped.) After a bombing raid on the big screen, the space below opens to show a Wyoming bar packed with flyboys — and one flygirl.
A rancher named Eric — tenor Joseph Dennis — suits Jess’s mood fine. A bed rolls in from stage left and they (partially) strip and (briefly, in mime fashion) go at it. Afterward, as Jess sleeps, Eric, in undershirt and shorts, sings: “I feel the sky in you.”
The plot turns on this off-base hookup. Pregnant, Jess is grounded. She and Eric marry and have a daughter, shown on the big screen in and out of the womb, then as a little girl who later appears in person and sings charmingly as Sam, short for Samantha, a Children’s Chorus of Washington member named Willa Cook.
When Jess tries to get airborne again, the Commander, bass Morris Robinson, offers her a spot on a Las Vegas-based drone squadron. She responds: “You want to stick me in the Chair Force?” “Major,” he says, “Shut the [f-word] up.” (The f-word is sung at several points, each time getting a laugh.)
Soon the other star of “Grounded” makes an appearance: a huge, bomb-equipped drone called the Reaper. One of these puppies, shown on the big screen, is said to cost $17 million. (They really exist, though per Wikipedia the price tag reads more like $30 million.) In one of the opera’s most effective scenes, tenor Frederick Ballentine, a former Cafritz Young Artist who plays the Trainer, introduces Jess and her fellow squadron members to their wondrous and deadly, remotely-piloted aircraft.
Jeanine Tesori’s brass-and-percussion-rich music, which tends to make more use of recitative than melody, shifts from vaguely patriotic to clearly ominous after Jess takes a seat in her drone team’s trailer. With the colorless view from the Reaper’s “Gorgon Stare” shown on multiple screens, she sings about the all-gray terrain that has replaced the blue sky she loved.
Confronted with gruesome visual evidence of the deaths she has caused, Jess begins to crack up, unable to resolve her drone-pilot and wife-and-mother personas. She becomes paranoid at a shopping mall and her face splits on the screen into flickering blue and red halves. “She’s slipping away,” sings Dennis as Eric, in a memorable solo.
Jess’s turmoil, known as dissociative identity disorder, is represented by a new character, Also Jess, played by soprano Teresa Perrotta, currently a Cafritz Young Artist, with whom she sings a powerful duet, Jess above and Also Jess below.
When her team is assigned a vitally important target, Jess’s crisis intensifies, leading to the opera’s climax and denouement, three hours — counting a half-hour intermission — after it began with a timpani roll.
Two more credits: The Washington National Opera Orchestra was cleanly conducted throughout by Daniela Candillari and the clear-voiced chorus well prepared by Chorus Master Steven Gathman.
The critics have not been as enthusiastic as the opening-night audience seemed to be. Even before “Grounded” opened, WNO’s decision to launch a season sponsored by military contractor General Dynamics with an opera about drone warfare required defending. Worse, the present geopolitical situation, with two regions where the numbers of dead and wounded are mounting, in part with U.S. military support, makes an opera on this theme difficult to stomach.
Is “Grounded” anti-war, as some claim? Most would say its message is mixed, the reason being that it is based on a much shorter one-woman play by George Brant, who wrote the libretto. That play, which I haven’t seen, presents the unnamed pilot’s crisis entirely from her point of view, in her own words.
This is to say that the play’s adaptation into grand opera was a tremendously ambitious and risky undertaking, motivated by the Met’s and WNO’s goal of producing contemporary works that will attract nontraditional — younger, less affluent, more diverse — audiences. “Grounded” makes an admirable if not wholly successful contribution to that effort, which remains a work in progress.
Performances of “Grounded” will continue through Nov. 13, overlapping slightly with Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Simon Godwin. Next fall, “Grounded” will open the Met’s 2024-25 season at Lincoln Center, with Jess vying for attention with Ethiopian princess Aida, played by soprano Angel Blue in a new Met production directed by Michael Mayer, coincidentally the director of “Grounded.”
“Grounded” is running now through Nov. 13 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The production contains “adult language, mature content, and mentions of violence.”