By Sheri Flanders and Josh Flanders
It is rare to see a piece of art that is, as the program book states, “an opera with two female leads, composed by a woman, the libretto written by a woman, based on a book by a woman, inspired by the lives of two real women from the early 1800.”
Patience & Sarah, composed by Paula Kimper 20 years ago (her first opera) with libretto by Wende Persons, based on the historical fiction novel by Alma Routsong, (written under the pen name Isabel Miller), is an ambitious project and a worthy and necessary story to be told. That’s fully in line with Third Eye Theatre Ensemble’s mission to present “quality productions of new or seldom performed operatic works that inspire conversation while advocating for human rights and social justice.”
The story, like that of many operas, is a simple one: Sarah meets Patience, they immediately fall in love, plan to run away together, yet are thwarted by their families. Patience, persuaded by her parents, shuns Sarah, who leaves to travel the countryside disguised as a young man. Along the way she meets Parson Peel, a books salesman, who falls for Sarah (calling herself Sam), a wonderfully interesting interlude in an otherwise predictable overall story.
Liana Gineitis stands out and shines as Sarah, a complex character whose emotional connections to those around her are palpable, and whose mezzo-soprano voice compliments her ability to honestly engage with each person she meets. The most interesting relationship in this story, oddly, is not between Sarah and Patience (Diana Stoic), whose character is unfortunately rather flat and one-note, but the friendship between Sarah and Parson Peel, played by Stephen Hobe whose character, and baritone, creates a wonderful compliment to Gineitis’ adventurous Sarah. As they travel together across America, one starts to gain a glimpse of what this story could have been.
Unfortunately, Persons libretto leaves much to be desired, lacking sophistication or metaphor. The best operas create emotions with the poetry their words, yet most of the time the characters sing plot summary and Patience is left to repeat bland, rote phrases such as “I want to paint” over and over again. The beauty of the vast, openness of the American frontier is left largely unexamined, as is the depth and nuance of their love. Unique details, such as the fact that Sarah was raised as a boy through her youth, are rapidly glossed over as an afterthought. This detail is given a nod of exposition through an ill-executed staging choice in which Sarah repeatedly, halfheartedly (and dangerously for the front row) attempts to chop an unsecured log of wood with a real axe, with the log oriented in the wrong direction.
The lackluster storytelling might have been transcended by the score, however the orchestration in the first half is abrupt, sharp and dissonant, the vocals also arranged so that vocalists sing in a rapid, staccato and jumpy manner which distracts from the tender budding romance and undermines the anticipation of heightened moments such as their first kiss. In the second half as Sarah and Parson Peel travel together, the music thankfully relaxes into something beautiful, rather ironically assuming a legato and more traditionally “romantic” sound.
Well executed by a clearly amazing cast and orchestra, Patience & Sarah is certainly a timely and worthy story to be told. Unfortunately, the libretto and score simply do not live up to the talents of the cast, nor to the beauty and depth of this clearly poignant story.
Third Eye Theatre Ensemble presents “Patience & Sarah” through October 21 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Clint Funk.