Charles Darwin, born six hours before Abraham Lincoln, is a seminal figure in modern intellectual history. And Friday evening, a chamber opera that considers him as a man received its successful world premiere at Union Station’s H&R Block City Stage Theatre.
Co-written by Dwight Frizzell and Michael Henry and staged by newEar and the Owen/Cox Dance Group choreographed by Jennifer Owen, "Darwin" combined the talents of five singers, five dancers, ten musicians and several audio and video landscapers and tech specialists to produce an interesting, original look in three acts at Charles Darwin the man.
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In case you've cut biology class for the last 154 years, Darwin is famous for the theory that "from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”
Tenor Robert Pherigo, who ably played Darwin, sang this famous ode to natural selection beautifully in the aria "Galapagos" that closed the first act.
Child soprano Audrey Hartwell played Darwin’s daughter with poise beyond her years. Countertenor Jedd Schneider, who sang as Captain Robert FitzRoy and soprano Sylvia Stoner, who appeared in four widely different roles, also deserve special mention.
The first act focuses on Darwin's journeys to Tierra del Fuego aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, a Royal Navy survey ship. His confusing encounters with the indigenous Yaghan people are the backdrop for some of Owen's best choreography of the evening, including a stylized, evocative coming of age dance in red and white.
The second act dramatizes Darwin’s wretched health, the childhood death of his daughter, and the 1860 Oxford debate between Thomas Huxley – “Darwin’s Bulldog" – and the Anglican clergyman William Wilberforce.
Darwin was an acute observer of nature, and the third act focuses on his book about earthworms, which became a best seller in England. "Darwin's" libretto borrows heavily from it and, as unlikely as it sounds, after hearing Darwin's words one can understand why it was so popular.
Charles Darwin's implicitly godless and curiously sexless Big Idea still exercises people. This only testifies to its power. But is it correct?
Perhaps wisely, the opera "Darwin" does not venture into this minefield. Rather, it focuses on Darwin's private side and offers a view of him that’s well worth seeing in Frizzell's and Henry's opera.
"Darwin" will be performed again at 8 p.m. Saturday at the theater. Go see it!