Puccini opera staged on Red Hook barge

Howard Kissel
Thursday, September 6th 2007

I have gone to operas in many odd places, but I have never trudged through gravel to see Puccini.

But what better place to see his waterfront opera, "Il Tabarro" ("The Cloak"), than on a barge in the Red Hook, Brooklyn, container port?

I attended a dress rehearsal last night and was in awe watching the grim action of Puccini's opera take place on a huge tanker, the Mary A. Whelan, rocking gently against Pier 9B in Brooklyn.

Gulls (and the occasional helicopter) flew overhead. To the west was the greenery of Governors Island. Looming behind the old boat were huge cranes. Behind the cranes, of course, were the lights of lower Manhattan.

A small orchestra, ably conducted by Peter Szep, performed the score on a lower deck. The action took place all over the 190-foot ship as well as around the audience on the pier. Amazingly, the acoustics were fine. So the singers sing naturally, without amplification.

Judith Barnes, the soprano in the role of the unfaithful Giorgetta, along with Zurab Ninua, the baritone who plays her jealous husband, and Christian Sebek, the tenor who portrays her lover, all act with as much skill, and passion, as they sing.

A large cast, imaginatively directed by Beth Greenberg, brings constant visual flair to the piece. It is being presented by the Vertical Player Repertory, an opera company that normally performs in a small converted factory building near the Gowanus Canal.

Barnes, who founded VRP in 1998, first did "Tabarro" a year ago "indoors, as most people do."

But she has always been fascinated by "the world of the waterfront." To connect with that world she took a kayak down the Gowanus, looking - futilely - for a suitable location.

At some point she became aware of PortSide NewYork, a not-for-profit organization trying to raise awareness of New York's working waterfront.

They were in the process of restoring the Whalen and were looking for an arts event to provide a focus for their work.

It was a fortuitous marriage. You'll never see the opera performed in as gritty or exhilarating a setting.

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