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Portland Opera review: two faces of David Lang

Production elements sometimes enhance, sometimes impair "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and “The Little Match Girl Passion”


Sunday afternoon marked a bravura effort by Portland Opera Association on the front lines of 21st century opera. Never an easy sell, “new” opera these days is propelled by a combination of theatrics, good music, and – as in modern cinema – special effects. POA chose well here, offering two short dramas by composer David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a success) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (a knockout). The shows conclude their run at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on August 3 and 5.

Match Girl is a moving setting of the 1846 Hans Christian Andersen tale, set on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The eponymous character, opening the opera center stage in foreboding sepia tones, was played with poise and aplomb by Max Young. The tiny match girl is the embodiment of goodness and purity pitied by onlookers too busy applauding their own pious countenance to actually help her to survive.

Portland Opera’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

While there is no earthly hope for the tiny waif, Anderson offers her hopeful dreams, brought on by the lighting of one match and then another and then all – a Christmas tree, a roasted goose, a fire to warm her bare feet and her beloved sainted grandmother.

Lang, his own librettist, inserts three angelic characters into the ensemble – guardians for her journey. He also inserts a moral overtone which, he has said, is the Passion story according to St. Matthew, hold the religion. Pain, suffering, faith, indifference.


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