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FW Opera’s ‘Voir Dire’ tries to do justice to crime-and-punishment tales

FW Opera's 'Voir Dire' a sellout

World premier of 'Voir Dire' a collection of crime-and-punishment tales at McDavid Studio by Fort Worth
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World premier of 'Voir Dire' a collection of crime-and-punishment tales at McDavid Studio by Fort Worth

It’s generally wise to read a synopsis before attending a brand-new opera. But what if, after reading the synopsis, you’re still not sure what the opera’s about? And after attending it, you’re still not sure?

That’s a potential problem with “Voir Dire,” a complicated work by composer Matthew Peterson and librettist Jason Zencka that the Fort Worth Opera premiered Sunday. The venue was McDavid Studio, a small space across the street from the more familiar and much larger Bass Hall.

“Voir Dire” lasts about an hour and a half and is presented in 14 mystifying “vignettes.” For the most part it’s set in a courtroom presided over by a versatile judge who hears both criminal and civil cases and seems to be tormented over questions of truth and justice and the difficulty of finding answers.

Some of the vignettes are serious (matricide is the charge), some are comic (a custody squabble over the ownership of a macaw) some seriocomic (a “professor of religion” who keeps insisting that he’s guilty of child pornography and a judge who keeps refusing to accept that plea).

There’s a kind of Alice in Wonderland atmosphere over most of the proceedings.

For the production, the Fort Worth Opera has assembled a gifted young cast of five, four of whom take multiple roles so skillfully that you might be tricked into thinking that the cast is much larger.

The one actor who stays with his character throughout is bass-baritone Nate Mattingly as the judge. Joining him are four singers (all of whom are also cast members of the Fort Worth Opera’s current “Carmen” and young “apprentices” of the opera): mezzo Anna Laurenzo, baritone Trevor Martin, soprano Christina Pecce and tenor Andrew Surrena.

The tenor of the work tends to keep you from becoming too emotionally involved with what’s going on, but there are a few genuinely serious scenes. One of them is Laurenzo’s portrayal of an abused and abandoned woman, a segment that I found deeply moving.

A highlight of the comic scenes is the bird custody case, in which Laurenzo and Pecce (stage names Kathy Jones-Morganson and Kathy Morganson-Jones) fight over who gets the macaw. Martin, as the bird, does some fine singing (and some eloquent squawking). In case you’re wondering, macaws tend to be baritones.

Musically, “Voir Dire” has a variety of styles, including some melodies in the conventional sense and some effective atmospheres created by a small orchestra (conducted by Viswa Subbaraman; individual instrumentalists were not credited). I found the jazz episode particularly appealing.

The opera is in English, though the words are not completely clear because there is no text projection. Be aware that there are plenty of F-bombs, all of which come across clearly.

Fort Worth Opera Festival

  • Voir Dire: April 25, 29 and 30 and May 6, McDavid Studio, sold out; to be placed on the wait list, call the box office.
  • Carmen: 2 p.m. April 30 and 7:30 p.m. May 5, Bass Hall, $17-$195
  • Cruzar la Cara de la Luna: 7:30 p.m. April 29 and 2 p.m. May 7, Bass Hall, $17-$175
  • Frontiers: 8 p.m. May 3 and 4, McDavid Studio, $10
  • 817-731-0726; www.fwopera.org
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