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Unplugged: VOICE Fest offers reprise of ‘Alice Ryley’ opera

  • Jessica Ann Best, left, and Ashley Dannewitz portray the two Alices in the opera "Alice Ryley."
 

Unplugged: VOICE Fest offers reprise of ‘Alice Ryley’ opera

24 Aug 2016

The final week of the 2016 Savannah VOICE Festival featured an array of high-quality events, including the staging of Michael Ching’s short opera “Alice Ryley” in a ballroom at The Westin Savannah Harbor.

The opera, which was commissioned by the Savannah VOICE Festival and VOICExperience, debuted in 2015 to much acclaim.

I’ll confess to not knowing much about the earliest years of Georgia, and I’m way behind on local ghost lore, so the story of Alice Riley (the name spelling changed for the opera) was largely new to me.

In 1735, Alice became the first woman to be hanged in the colony, and some believe — almost three centuries later — that her ghost still haunts Wright Square, where the public execution was performed.

The opera was inspired by the book “Historic Haunts of Savannah” by Michael Harris and longtime Savannah Morning News reporter Linda Sickler.

The story is told from the point of view of two Alices — an Alice (Jessica Ann Best) waiting in jail for her baby to be born before her execution and a younger Alice (Ashley Dannewitz), who has survived the perilous journey to the New World but now faces the grim life of an indentured servant.

Alice falls for the dashing Richard Wright (James Wright), but their master (Carlton Moe) vows to separate them after voyeuristically enjoying the young couple’s passion. Murder ensues, and James eventually turns on Alice, whose only support comes from the nurse Mary (Kristin Schwecke).

The production had some especially moving moments, including a glorious duet by the two Alices.

The producers made the best of the limitations of The Westin ballroom. From where I sat, the balance between the voices and the instruments was just right, and the bold but simple lighting scheme allowed the audience to be transported to a much darker time in Savannah’s history.

The principal performers all had stellar voices, and they were supported by a strong, energetic chorus.

With Ching himself on piano, Ricardo Ochoa on violin, Steven Elisha on cello and Jesse Monkman on percussion, the music alone would have made a fine show.

The legendary Sherrill Milnes was also part of last week’s production. He played a contemporary tour guide, whose brief spiel to tourists frames the 18th-century story.

In the production notes, Ching comments that he is now working on a comic opera inspired by Anna Hunter, who was influential in Savannah’s preservation movement of the 1950s. Ching notes that the coming opera “will hopefully be as light as Alice is dark.”

 

Bill Dawers writes City Talk in the Savannah Morning News and blogs at Savannah Unplugged (billdawers.com) and hissing lawns (hissinglawns.com). Email him at billdawers@comcast.net.

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