"I still hear the wheeps of curlews, the buzz of bluebottles or clegs and then a minute's silence, more or less, before I shot him through his dicky heart."
No one can sing those trippy, Irish words of librettist Paul Muldoon so we understand them. In the cavernous, industrial space of Rich's cabaret -- the perfect location, by the way, since the creators specify a nightclub -- the dense, knotty words of Pulitzer Prize-winner Muldoon float up and away faster than fake fog on a dance floor. Where are the sur-titles? We get the gist, but paragraphs of plot and characterization fly off into the ether.
Fortunately, composer Daron Hagen's Bernstein-like music is engaging and likable, just this side of modern. If the words go spiky and unintelligible, there's always the pastiche music to carry us through.
Interrogated by spies Trench and Trilby (Meghan Garvin and Devyn Werner), set to jazzy percussion, IRA member Taco Bell (tenor Eamon Pereyra) is beaten into unconsciousness. In his dream, he's on the lam with buddy Dumdum (baritone Brian Shircliffe), flying to Las Vegas for Wheel of Fortune. Stewardess Doll (soprano Cassandra Black), some type of double agent, hooks them up with protector Vera (countertenor Eduardo Lopez de Casas). Doll purrs to Taco, "She'll be your girl Friday...and more." And how. Vera, an over-the-hill Vegas entertainer, feels like sandpaper, Taco surprisingly discovers after a tryst. Vera is a man. Taco is smitten. If they marry, Vera suggests, the INS agents will leave them alone. Vera rips up her business card. Instead of "Vera Loman, LAPDANCER," her card now reads, "Vera Loman, LAPD." Agents Trench and Trilby, dogging everyone till then, run away. Vera sings her big aria about her past life -- a rousing, blues '80s anthem -- but Taco drifts back to the interrogation center.
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Double-edged as comedy and drama, Vera deals with the power of transformation, the fluidity of gender, and the elusiveness of love. Like Vegas with its "computer blue skies" in the center of nowhere, who can tell the tawdry from the true? The plot's convoluted and sketchy, one hour isn't sufficient for all the strands to untwist. While Vera's aria to her lost youth is dramatic and infused with heady poetry, we haven't been primed to care. Suddenly, she's in her little world, singing her head off, and leaving us cold. There are beauties to savor besides characterization, and this work which lasts barely an hour is at least easy on the ears. Hagen weaves influences from big band, Sondheim, Broadway pop, cabaret, and madrigal. Like the work's theme, everything's fluid. The best music belongs to the female chorus, The Catchalls, nine singers who get to be flight attendants, wedding singers, croupiers, and strippers. Their music constantly changes and is always fascinating, either in tight harmony like the Andrew Sisters or wistful like churchly Purcell.
Maestro Viswa Subbaraman keeps the small orchestral ensemble in jaunty step throughout, even though the singers are haunted by over-stimulated amplification and Rich's sound-swallowing hall. De Casa's Vera is appropriately matronly, and her final aria is heartfelt, if undecipherable. Pereira exudes Taco's early braggadocio and later disorientation. Shircliffe fills the cavernous space with Dumdum's lively boom, and Black finds lots of hidden touches in secretive, sexy Doll.
The verdict: You'll never understand everything that's sung, the lighting is optional -- the followspot operator needs glasses, at the very least, if not rehearsal -- but the constantly-shifting production under director Buck Ross never flags, nor does Hagen's music. This trip to Vegas is certainly profitable.
Vera of Las Vegas performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday at Rich's, 2400 San Jacinto. Tickets are $10 to $20 and can be purchased at www.operavista.org