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Review: The interrogation of Alberto Gonzales hits its musical mark in Gonzales Cantata

Susan Galbraith of DC Theatre Scene

Election night 2020 IN Series opened a cantata-as-opera based on the Senate Judiciary hearings of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

It was bold enough that Artistic Director Timothy Nelson had announced earlier this year that his company IN Series would be “the first completely virtual opera house” and produce a full season of works. Then came word that in November there would be three “openings” in four days, culminating in The Gonzales Cantata. (Who opens a production on Election Day?) However, cleverly marketed as a welcome break before returns came in, with a patriotic costume party cum virtual cocktails thrown in taking place in the opera house’s “lounge,” it seemed just cheeky enough. Besides, so many of us thought that soon all would be well.

Who knew this election would be such a nail biter?

In this town, political fare on stage serves as the conversation du jour, and, perhaps despite ourselves, the inevitable drug of choice. As the overture starts we see a pattern of autumnal colors layered over the organist blasting away, soon joined by frenetically bowing string players, and bleeding through all this an American flag. Images and the fortissimo blare of instruments harkens to the din we have been living through these last few years with competing sounds, stories, and images that add up to calamitous warnings of our democracy crumbling.

Adam Grannick’s video collage work captures the energy and tenor of our times exactly, especially as flakes and then chunks of our disintegrating flag seem to be whipped up by a wind and blown across the screen destroying any sense of order.

Composer Melissa Dunphy’s work reminds us, perhaps even comforts us – we’ve been on the brink of political and moral disaster before. The year was 2007. Alberto Gonzales, who had been brought into the position of Attorney General under President George W. Bush two years before, was forced to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing that proved disastrous for the Republican loyalist.

Lest we forget: Historical background to Gonzales’ testimony

In the concerns the senators laid out, there was a marked difference then to now, as the gentlemen and single woman on the committee seemed to work together, Republicans and Democrats, against corruption and illegal maneuverings. There were multiple concerns: the firing of nine US attorneys on partisan grounds, the illegal domestic surveillance program, and Gonzales’ authorization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” which included “frigid temperatures, sleep deprivations, and simulated drowning.” To many of the questions, as the transcriptions read, Gonzales simply could not remember.

Dunphy makes strong use of classical choral writing, befitting the pomp and circumstance of official government hearings. Her settings of parts, however, chose to feature complete gender switching, with all the male senators sung by sopranos and altos while Barbara Feinstein is sung by a male tenor. This seemed curious and artificially strained at first. On watching the piece a second time, I could better appreciate the choice, thankful for the distancing it gave the proceedings.

Even so, the uncomfortable moments mounted. The eight singers in the cast also perform as the Chorus. Early on they sing (in true fugue form) of an administration that values “Loyalty over judgment/ secrecy over openness/ ideology over competence.”

Like a good Greek Chorus this one both represents the citizens and comments on the citizenry.

I was reminded that our system works only when the country watches closely. I’d like to think Washington “audiences” always watch more closely, serving much like a Chorus. We usually feel a personal stake in the outcome.

The singers do admirably. Under strong musical direction from Michael Lodico, they rip through the quite complicated score with alacrity, and the sound is of high quality. The cast doesn’t strain to impersonate their specific characters but there are nice character touches, such as Elizabeth Van Os as Jeff Sessions sneaking cookies in and out of the “televised frame, ”Noelle McMurtry’s (Benjamin L Cardin) focused dealings with the microphone and other accouterments, and Joe Haughton as Diane Feinstein who, never descending into camp, keeps bringing us back to pro patria with a rousing rendition of “Land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Each character gets to have a featured “scene-let” with Melissa Wimbish as Gonzales. Kelly Curtin as Patrick Leahy bears down on Gonzales with “The justice is losing its way.” Cara Schaefer as Orin Hatch, takes an intimate and sympathetic approach. “I think you will agree this was handled poorly.” Theirs becomes a beautiful and affecting duet.

Wimbish carries the story and finds a way to be both inept and wandering in her responses and, at times, the tragic figure sealing Gonzales’ downfall. One of her best moments is in the aria, where she takes out and applies greasepaint to make her face into a Pagliacci clown. It’s a quiet reflective piece, and she communicates insight into her character’s own undoing as she sings, “This is not about Gonzales. This it about the Department of Justice. This is about protecting our kids, protecting our neighborhoods, protecting our country.” A moment later she sings, “The moment I believe I can no longer be effective, I will resign.” But later Gonzales tries, somewhat pathetically, to hold on to power in “I think there are some good things I can accomplish.”

I was deeply moved at the end by the delivery of Gonzales’ last words; “I have lived the American dream. Even my worst days as the Attorney General have been better than my father’s best days.”

Let us remember, as flawed as Gonzalez was, he had the moral fiber to step down and leave. As we stand poised to hear the result of this election, I will suggest that immersing oneself in another snapshot of our country through music and words might help us maintain healthy blood pressure levels.

In Series’ The Gonzales Cantata, a 90-minute work by Melissa Dunphy is available to view here.

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