Intriguing but neither commercial nor chamber, “Black Water,” a new opera based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, fictionalizes the terrible events of nearly 30 years ago at Chappaquiddick, when Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in Sen. Edward Kennedy’s car when it ran off a bridge after a summer party. The acting and singing outweigh the light score and static drama, but the indictment — of the man and the society — is potent enough. Whatever mystery surrounds the historical events, Oates leaves no doubt that the fictional senator’s cowardice and political survival instinct murdered the young woman.
The action takes place, significantly, on the Fourth of July. Young, well-connected types are atwitter that the Senator has come to their party for a day of eating, dancing, tennis, flirting and drinking. As the Senator, Patrick Mason, with his fine suave voice, conveys a sexy magnetism that combines lust for power with world-weariness. A young woman named Kelly Kelleher (Karen Burlingame) is one of the guests: youthful, ambitious, eager for adventure. With her blond pageboy, wholesome face and fresh voice, Burlingame conveys the play’s point of view, her character believing to the end that her trust will be rewarded, that the Senator will return to rescue her even as the black water fills her lungs.
Stephanie Buckley, as their kittenish hostess, nearly steals the show with her big, melodic voice — she also gets an aria climaxing with impossibly high notes on the words “Haagen-Dazs!”
Because we know what happens, and because the characters reveal who they are from the start, the show feels inert and overlong. Both the music — combining intense lyricism with pop rhythms — and the libretto — mixing gorgeous poetic images with flat contemporary speech — would be better served by a one-act structure. The tale lacks the heightened emotions that would justify setting the story to music, and “Black Water” seems too intellectualized a lesson, despite some stunning, theatrical lighting.