Review of “Ile” in Herald Times Online

from a review by Peter Jacobi, HeraldTimesOnline.com, May 7, 2014 –
2 New Operas Provide Food for Thought, Fun

Ile New Voices“Ile,” pronounced with a broad “I,” sets to music a play by Eugene O’Neill. “Ile” is the way the central character, the captain of a whaling ship in the 1890s, pronounces “oil.” He is fanatic when it comes to filling the ship with whale oil; there can be no return to home, he decrees, without the oil, no matter what the circumstances. It so happens, on this particular journey, the ship gets caught in ice for an extended period, causing the trip to become endless enough for the crew to consider mutiny and the captain’s wife, who had begged to come along rather than once again be left alone for a matter of months, to lose her mind, literally.

Ile New Voices3The score is Italian verismo, updated and made American through language, O’Neill’s inescapably stark New England and composer Donner’s own gift at establishing mood and tone. The music strongly hints of Puccini and his disciples. It draws one in, being melodic, lushly orchestrated and dramatic, eminently suited to O’Neill’s tragic material.

A chamber ensemble of 12 instrumentalists complemented the vocals, thanks to the score itself and to conductor Carlos Andres Botero. He and stage director David Kote gave the cast sufficient underpinning to make O’Neill’s six troubled characters once again come to life. Baritone Reuben Walker and soprano Natalie Weinberg as Captain Keeney and his wife entered totally into that unhappy world. So did bass-baritone Andrew Richardson as a grumpy, griping seaman and baritone Ryan Kieran as Keeney’s supportive Second Mate. Baritone Bruno Sandes and tenor Jake Gadomski added their portrayals of other seamen caught on the gloomy vessel.

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Review of “Ile” in Artsong Update

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The final work was the most dramatic: Ezra Donner’s operatic adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Ile, about a ship and crew at sea for two years searching for a full cargo of whale oil. The impressive Kenneth Weber was the obsessed Captain Keeney, who puts down a mutiny (“I’m the law on this ship!”) by crewmen who want to turn the ship for home. As his wife, Signe Mortensen brought out the intense loneliness of a woman on a ship, hungry for the sound of a woman’s voice; she begged her husband to turn around or she’ll go mad. He promised to — and then reneged. She snapped, laughing crazily and, on the organ he brought aboard for her comfort, playing an insane mishmash of hymn tunes — including a brief snatch of the hymn tune known as the Navy Hymn — “for those in peril on the sea.” Both Weber and Mortensen had the power and skill to make every word count.

from a review by M.D. Ridge in Artsong Update, June 2012:

Review of “Sonata Judaica” and Sonata No. 1 for Piano in The Big City

The standout pieces on the program were two works by Donner….His Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Sonata Judaica for clarinet and piano performed the vital action of setting their own premises and then attacking them a little bit. The duo was energetic and good humored, incorporating the flavor of Jewish melodies into Modernist structures with just enough touches of popular culture and craziness to also try and break out of them. It offered…a very open-hearted and human approach to music making. The piano sonata, played by Donner, was an exciting, impressive work…tossing off interesting, jazzy and often intensely energetic phrases, abandoning them and bringing them back just at the moment one thinks he’s forgotten about them.  It seems random but is actually continuous. The material is dense but the writing is always clear, even in the inner voices.

from a review by George Grella in The Big City, March 10, 2010