Fort Worth — With the surplus of courtroom dramas on television, it was only matter of time before it came to the operatic stage. Composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka brings it to the Fort Worth Opera. with a world premiere, first seen in snippets at the FWO's Frontiers in 2014. Zencka drew on his experience as a crime reporter so the goings-on have the veracity of facts. Staged in the intimate McDavid Studio, Voir Dire is a powerhouse of an opera, engaging the audience from start to finish.
The title is a legal term derived from French, meaning, "to see to speak.” This usually refers to the questioning and seating of jurors what can also mean any hearing without a jury. Such is the case here.
In 14 scenes, the opera presents different cases, from pathetic to silly, in their preliminary hearings. Over all this hangs an important case. It is about the sentencing of an already convicted teenage boy who murdered his mother in a horrific way: burning her alive. He never appears physically, but is represented by a light on an empty chair. The judge’s ambivalence about a just sentence for the boy, taking in to consideration the horror of the crime and, as opposed to the abuse he suffered from his mother’s hand.
The opera is performed by an astonishing cast of marvelous singers. They are in the FWO Hattie Lesley Apprentice Artists program, but there is nothing in their performance that says “apprentice.” They all play multiple roles and do a fine job of making them all different, as befits the characters.
In a distant way, this reminds of a much more sophisticated and serious-minded Judge Judy or a combative Jerry Springer style television show (which was turned into a scandalously funny opera by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee).
The most pathetic scene concerns a shell of a woman. Her downfall was caused by drug addiction and sexual exploitation.
The funniest case involves two low class females fighting over the ownership of a macaw. The macaw appears (singer in a bird suit) and the scene devolves into pure slapstick. The action turns into a conga line and the judge even puts on a Carman Miranda-style hat, without the fruit, and joins in the festivities. Other than to provide some silliness into what is, overall, a bleak drama of human failings, the value of the inclusion of this intrusion is beyond me.
A more appropriate comic relief is provided by a completely unorganized ditz of a Lucy-like attorney. She creates a blizzard of papers, as she tries to find the one that applies to her current appearance. You can be sure that Zencka had someone specific in mind, or maybe it was a composite, but it was delightful.
There is a professor of religion who is caught with some pornographic pictures of an underage child on his computer. He has completely lost it. He is shaking, grimacing and bent over by his unfathomable situation. He constantly shouts that he is guilty, even though this is only a preliminary hearing.
The mother of boy we never see appears, giving a frantic call to 911. She also appears as a ghost and we see what a monster she was to her son, constantly pouring medicine (but who knows what it really is?) down his throat for some imagined illness.
A dirty-mouthed man defends himself against rape charges brought by his estranged wife. This presents the conundrum of is forced sex with your spouse rape. This has been debunked legally a long time ago and as a society except for a few lagging states, we have confirmed that “no” means “no.”
The singers all deserve standing O’s for their performances: beautifully sung and dramatically believable (no easy task). Frequently they were taken way out of range and had to pull notes from the air since the accompaniments frequently offered any help. The score was effective but nothing in the music was particularly memorable: no earworms to take home with you as a souvenir. But that was not the composer’s intent. This music is intended to match, illustrate and highlight the words of the text. He saved the inspirational moment for the finale.
At the end, the characters reappear and sing a most welcome beautiful anthem with a puzzling text.
“…truth is cold and strange, no home for me there; You scrutinize but do not see, you listen but do not hear. Forget the truth: remember me.”
There is much to disagree with in this statement. The truth is a home, a refuge, for all of us. It is never cold and strange, it just is. Further, the American promise of equal justice for everyone is slowly being reached but, admittedly, still has a way to go. However, the truth is our only defense.
While it is good for a judge to consider the person behind the crime, they never can forget the truth, and how that fits with the law. Further, every judge that I have known remembers all the people that appeared before the bench quite vividly. Some they wish they could help and some that horrified them, but they are all fellow humans in spite of how they got there.