Peabody Chamber Opera got up close and personal with some big trains last weekend to spin an intriguing ghost story.
The company's venture into the B&O Railroad Museum was a first (I wouldn't be surprised if it's the last, too) and certainly spiced up the winter season.
The venue neatly served the plot of Paul Crabtree's "The Ghost Train," based on the 1923 Arnold Ridley play of that name, and the composer's wish to draw attention to old railroad buildings.
Although it was fun to see the piece played out in front of and occasionally inside the historic trains in the musuem's massive Roundhouse (and fun to hear a train whistle and see steam rising out of an engine), ambient noise and muddy acoustics meant that a lot was swallowed up, vocal and instrumental. The sound proved a major frustration.
(On the other hand, I can imagine big, brassy, edgy or super-moody instrumental works played there to keen effect.)
Of course, there were surtitles, so there was no danger of losing the opera's thread, but clearer sound sure would have been more rewarding.
The plot concerns unfortunate travelers who get stuck in an out-of-the-way railway station on the night a locomotive phantom is due to speed by, spreading death to those who dare look. Needless to say, the mystery train is not what it seems. Nothing, for that matter, is what it seems.
It's a good yarn, especially the way the truth is gradually let in (there's a nefarious reason why people are warned to avert their eyes). Whether it makes a thoroughly effective opera, I'm not so sure.
Crabtree's score is proficient, but lacks a strong, consistent voice. A couple of songful flights and some attractive minimalistic pulsations in the orchestration compete with passages that settle into extended recitative mode.
The composer creates effective touches to help build tension around the approaching train, though doesn't get up quite enough steam to turn generate a real grabber of a scene.
The cast, imaginatively directed by Garnett Bruce, communicated the diverse characters with a good deal of personality and moved smoothly through the wide space (nicely lit by Douglas Nelson).
In a dual assignment as the stationmaster and the brother of a distraught late addition to the waiting room, Rob McGinness stood out for his impressive singing. In addition to a well-supported tone and supple phrasing, he articulated with such pristine diction that he was able to get past the acoustical hurdle much of the time.
Megan Heavner, as the lonely Miss Bourne, did solid, expressive work. There were vibrant contributions from Molly Park (the nervous Peggy), Natanya Sheva Washer (the troubled Elsie), and Alexandra Patterson (the obsessed Julia).
John An showed promise as Elsie's husband. Michael Dodge made up for a thin tone with persuasive acting as the unflappable Teddy Deakin, whose selfish act sets the plot in motion.
The orchestra hit some intonation bumps, but otherwise delivered. And the attentive conductor JoAnn Kulesza kept the performance on track.