Even as an opera fan, I admit that the genre needs a reboot for the 21st century. WholeTone Opera presents La Zombiata for Valentine’s Day weekend in February 2016 at the Davis Square Theatre. The original retelling by Jillian Flexner of Mozart’s La Traviata is a short, fifty-minute, zombie-filled zomp through love and violence. Director J. Deschene and Music Director Ian Garvie keep the production moving at a clip pace, but, ultimately, the production feels thin. With some well-timed blood splatters and fine vocals, the evening was a fine foray into the multi-faceted potential for the company, but a simplistic attempt.
La Zombiata is a one-act parody of classical opera tropes, such as the romantic notions of Mozart and Verdi, with original music (featuring a chorus and refrain of “brains, brains, brains”). Set in an unexplained zombie apocalypse, La Zombiata follows star-crossed zombie lovers, Cristolpho and Philonia, who rebel against their zombie culture, angering the human huntress, Xenobia, and her faction of zombies. You see, love is too much of a human emotion for zombies. The opera works on multiple levels. First, you have the parodies of La Traviata, including spoofs on their romantic arias. Next, you see the comedy of zombies singing with diction and elocution, all while swaying and staggering across the stage. Finally, you have the commentary on the different levels of deadness within the zombie community, from the silent (and mostly unseen) zombie hordes to the ravenous undead singers seeking brains and flesh to the three main characters who can speak and even sing of their desires (love, brains, and the status quo). The juxtaposition of these features make the opera an interesting feat in an otherwise lacking canon of modern comedic operas.
The opera, despite its form, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Within a Parisian ballroom, Cristolpho (played with confident sincerity by Garry McLinn) spies the beautiful Philonia (played by the lithe Nora Maynard) and pleas for her love and compassion. Philonia is almost stopped by Xenobia (played with wild abandon by Christine Duncan), but Philonia demands time to process love’s advances, torn between her human love for a man’s embrace and her zombie love for, well, brains. Maynard’s aria is silly but almost incomprehensible; she has a fine tone but her diction makes writer Jillian Flexner’s clever lyrics difficult to appreciate. McLinn has the best diction of the leads, though his voice sounds a bit tired in parts, strained in the upper register. Music Director Ian Garvie passionately conducts and coaches the singers to good success in the intimate space, but his biggest success in his eight-piece orchestra (featuring three stringed instruments but no piano). The instrumentalists sound quite lovely and show the complexity in the score.
The writing by Jillian Flexner is streamlined, capping at fifty minutes, which doesn’t leave much room for variation. This focus limits the conflict and its development in the tight opera. From the Parisian ballroom, we travel to the forest where we assume that McLinn’s Cristolpho and Maynard’s Philonia are ready to pursue their escapist life in love as half-humans, half-zombies. Xenobia’s Duncan interrupts the lovers’ (well-sung) duet and demands Philonia returns to her place among the zombie horde (or Cristolpho dies, but isn’t he already?). Xenobia and Philonia return to Paris to join the feast with the other ravenous zombies, singing about the many types of humans to eat and enjoy (a spoof on Don Giovanni). Then, a disguised Cristolpho sneaks into the feast to plea for his love to Philonia; he is caught and he sings one final love song. The action is not the focus or the highlight of the production.
Director J. Deschene understands and respects the multiple domains within this production, including zombie lore, opera etiquette, and a millennial generation’s sensibilities and interests. The Davis Square Theatre was the perfect playing space for this intimate show to bring the audience into the action, complete with a splash zone (we were all covered in ponchos and waiting for the action). If you like zombie mayhem, blood-splattering camp, or spoofy operas, La Zombiata is a lover’s treat. I don’t care for a stuffy opera, but I also prefer my productions with a bit more meat to them. La Zombiata is a solid first production for the WholeTone Opera.