Cher Public

Edgar Allan Nouveau

Edgar_Allan_Poe_by_VallottonA painter’s nightmares of death start to become real. A man’s lover dies of a flesh-eating plague and inhabits the body of a new young fling. A TV news anchor finds herself on the other side of the headlines, drowning in the Holland Tunnel. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive today, these are the operas he might have written. 

Or so think the six up-and-coming composers and librettists of The Poe Project, part of the Composer Librettist Development Program at the American Lyric Theater. It’s a compelling premise, and each of the three operas captures elements of Poe’s unsettling vision.

In a concert performance Monday evening at Symphony Space, a cast of six excellent and devoted singers, with pianist Leesa Dahl and conductor Keith Chambers, brought these works-in-progress to life. There was no staging, but the singers all knew how to establish a character even while standing in one place in casual concert dress. And while the operas are all still in development, they all construct disturbing, menacing worlds riven by fear.

According to the bio of composer Jeff Myers, Buried Alive “draws on themes of anxiety and mortality from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Premature Burial.” Really, all three of the Poe Project operas are built on themes of anxiety and mortality: Of the Flesh (music by Jay Anthony Gach, libretto by Royce Vavrek) applies those elements to disease and sex, and Embedded (music by Patrick Soluri, libretto by Deborah Brevoort) applies them to issues of aging and the darker side of fame.

Buried Alive (libretto by Quincy Long) opened the evening. Like the protagonist in Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” the painter Victor fears nothing more than the prospect of being buried alive. Of the three Poe Project operas, Buried Alive most convincingly achieves a Poe-esque slippage between the real and the surreal.

Victor’s death, established in the opening scene, turns out to be merely a nightmare; the morgue in the third scene suddenly falls away into the emergency room. And then, once we begin to think that Victor’s premonitions will be proven false, he awakes to find his fear coming to pass.

The naturalistic rhythms of the text-setting highlight the alternately irritated and loving intimacy between Victor and his wife Elena, as well as the sinister abyss between Victor and the Mortician. The mortuary/medical trio felt peculiar at first, even superfluous; that may have been partly due to the concert setting. But as the trio begin to interact with Victor and Elena, the intersection heightened the uncertainty between the living and the nightmare worlds.

…Of the Flesh inhabits a post-apocalyptic world much more literal than the ghostly realm of Buried Alive. As its title suggests, this opera explores the physical: disease, sex, breath, death. A flesh-eating virus ravaging the population. The parallels to the HIV epidemic feel too blunt, too easy: there’s the emergence of a mysterious, deadly disease, survivors’ sense of loss as friends upon friends die, the avoidance of touching others for fear of contracting it, and the isolation of those who are dying alone. And, of course, there’s the gay male couple at the center of the story.

But from this clunky (or is it campy?) premise, the opera builds a genuine creepiness. The libretto continually skirts the edge of the sexy and the sickly. Flesh is seduction, disease, even food; breath is both heady and invasive; sex is a submission and a domination, enticing yet potentially deadly. Leif’s sensual line “Biting at my lips” devolves into the aggressive “chewing at my skin,” paralleling the march of the disease across its victims. Even destruction has its allure.

It’s refreshing to see such a frank depiction of a gay couple’s love life and sex life as Harris and Vince. Their love duets begin sweetly and soon take on sinister undertones. After Vince’s death, the flirtation between Harris and Leif sparkles with coy humor. When Harris sets down his rules and declares that Leif should call him “Vince,” Harris’s use of the third person shifts the scene into something dark and peculiar.

Gach’s music dances with charisma. Finely tuned shifts of mood emerge through his keen sense of rhythm and rich harmonic vocabulary. The well-matched pair of Chrisopher Burchett (Harris) and Kevin Burdette (Vince) help keep the campy premise aloft.

In Embedded, the strongest elements are, curiously, the ones that are least Poe-like. Brevoort’s libretto shows an acute ear for contemporary speech, and she’s not afraid to use casual words like “yeah” or have a character call her rival a “bitch.” This opera earned the most laughs, particularly at lines like, “They have facials in Jersey, don’t they?” – coming from a fey stylist giving advice to the aging news anchor Sylvia. The voice of a GPS sings, “Recalculating.”

The staff on set declares that Sylvia needs more color in her cheeks, something to cover the lines in her face, anything that will make her look younger. Brevoort – the only woman amongst the librettists and composers – clearly understands the insults embedded in people’s attitudes toward women.

The point is made effectively by the pile-up in the newsroom, and we feel the sting. But then Sylvia sings an aria about what we’ve just witnessed, pointing out that men can go grey and women must dye, that men can wear wrinkles but women get Botox. “Take years off… That’s what women have to do!” We get it.

In his first conversation with Sylvia, the terrorist Montresor first points out that she’s “the top name in TV, the most trusted name in news.” She agrees. Then he flatters her: “You’re beautiful.” This is her vulnerable spot: “You think so?” Brevoort’s sensitivity to women’s predicaments may not be something Poe (or just about any male) would have written, but it rings true, and it’s often powerful.

If only the music were as resonant. After the subtlety and variety in the previous opera, the music of Embedded often feels square, even generic. It’s got moments of great color: the quick back-and-forth of the newsroom dialogue, the mimicry of a news program’s music bed. But it’s the libretto that carries this opera, along with the strong singing of soprano Caroline Worra as Sylvia.

Worra’s striking tone suited the role of Sylvia, bringing to life the news anchor’s vulnerability and twisted triumph. In …Of the Flesh, Worra captured Elena’s swings from warmth to foolishness, though she sounded a little strident at times.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel made a commanding, sinister Mortician and Doctor in the evening’s first two operas. The baritone Christopher Burchett sang both Victor and Harris with power and depth, though some of his climactic moments seemed a bit scratchy; he seemed to be nursing a cough.

Tenor Chad Johnson used his youth and lightness to advantage in the roles of Leif and Sylvia’s assistant Rory, though he had the power where required. Jamie-Rose Guarrine captured the simpering flirtatiousness of upstart Victoria Reilly in Embedded, though in the other operas’ ensembles she didn’t quite match the volume of her cohorts. In Buried Alive, the imposing bass Kevin Burdette needed better diction, which he achieved in his singing of Vince.

As a trilogy, the operas work beautifully together. Centered around the common inspiration of Poe’s fiction, each work focuses on characters who are terrified – not just of death, but of ceasing to exist altogether.

  • phoenix

    Dana, if you don’t mind me asking, how long has this “Poe Project” been going on? It seems to pop up once inawhile under various media incarnations as, i guess “a work in progress” should.
    — Well, your take on it is a plus + for the progress of the work. If i lived down there, i’d have a craving for the next episode. Too bad it’s not webcast/podcast.
    — Thanks!

    • phoenix: The Poe Project at ALT began in 2009, but I think there are some other, unrelated Poe Projects out there.

      • phoenix

        thanks Dana for your clarification… i do remember at least two other referenced “Poe Projects” in the last year or so, but I don’t think they are related to this one at ALT. It is encouraging after having left NYC 15 years ago to see an organization like ALT developing along such creative lines. Some things did get better.
        — eating words, your blogk, reads like a true diary, which most of these things do not. Do you also post reviews of chamber music concerts on other music sites?
        — Your gallery (the complete one on Flickr) took up most of my time in the late afternoon-early evening tonight. Not only is your photography first rate, but the memories you brought back… thanks very muchy for posting the pictures of Samarquand, Bukhara & particularly Khiva. I visited those places in 1989 & that was the best long trip of my life.
        — I never made it to the Jewish Cemetary in Bukhara, but the “Bukhara Jews” are legendary & known worldwide. I would have gone if I knew it was there just to see what it was like. I assume there is a Russian Orthodox Cemetary there also?
        — Thanks for the fotos of Tibet, which I visited a few years earlier, but i couldn’t find many pictures on your Flikr Fotostream of the main square in Kathmandu the way i remembered it … jammed full of crowds with all kinds of people, particulary in mid-morning, the young girls seated on the old stone monuments in their beautiful saris picking the lice out of each other’s hair with big black combs while they laughed & gossiped.
        — I am particularly grateful for the fotos you posted of Kyrgyzstan, which i never visited. The beauty land itself is worth the trip alone. The quality artwork of the fotos you put up in your galleries is amazing. Also much appreciated are your fotos of northern China & Korea which I never saw either. That Jangshan Park looks incredible.
        — Your Block Island fotos (another place i never visited but think about a lot & find it fascinating because of it’s protected climate) made the place look even more tantalizing than i imagine it would.
        — A suggestion for a trip for you (if you haven’t been there yet already) is Sheki, Azerbajian. This is the only place in the world i ever visited (besides the Bolshoi) that i wanted to just stay & die there … like i had finally come back home. Everybody everywhere, even on the street, smiled & said hello & talked to me as if i was a native of the place. This mountain town is just beautiful in natural forest situation. There is an old Turkish Caravansarai (a hotel, but i didn’t have to stay in it) and there is a ruined but beautful Armenian Church and, what makes it all worthwhile to go there: the Palace of the Shekhi Khan, all built of wood with no metal

        • phoenix: Thank you! I believe there is a Russian Orthodox cemetery in Bukhara, but I didn’t visit it. And Azerbaijan is definitely on my list of places I’d love to travel to.

          As for your question about chamber music: I adore chamber music but haven’t written about it as much as I’d like. In terms where I publish, I sometimes write about music for the Waterbury (Conn.) newspaper, and about music and food for the Hartford Courant.

          • phoenix

            Dana: thanks for your reply & the info. I assume you will post references to any reviews/trips you make on your website and/or your blog, as you posted a reference to this Poe Project performance. I’ve put your sites on my Favorites & intend to check it out every week at least.
            — Yes Azerbajian is wonderful. It is not a difficult place to get around. Shekhi is, of course, very special and supersedes anything in Central Asia for me personally.
            — Shemakha (of “le Coq d’Or fame) is also in Azerbajian, but it was destroyed in an earthquake (as you know the old city of Toshkhent was also), so much of the ruins, the old palace & fort of Shemakha are now overgrown by forest. Nobody has done much excavation, so it is usually just a rest stop for lunch on most people’s itineraries.
            — I also visited Tajikhistan for awhile, but the only thing i liked about it were the mountains bordering on the Chinese border. The main part of the country has been repeatedly deforested since the time of the Persian occupation, so it’s sort of a dustbowl. The mountains are the only place with any great beauty.
            — Again, thanks for your review & your wonderful photo artwork. Please do some more of both (when you get the time).

  • CruzSF

    I wish I could have attended this evening of new works. Even as “works-in-progress,” these short operas sound exciting.

  • phoenix

    Tommorrow at 3 pm on Nederlands Radio 4 (and on the Donderdagavondserie archive for at least another month) is broadcast a live performance from Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ Amsterdam of another micro opera: Anais Nin

    Anaïs Nin (world premiere 10 July 2010 Siena, Italy), a monodrama consisting of excerpts from Nin’s diaries re: her father composer and pianist Joaquín Nin, Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud and René Allendy. The work was written for singer Cristina Zavalloni & the New Amsterdams Peil. Backup is provided by an 8 member band: trumpet, horn, saxophone, clarinet, violin, doublebass, piano & percussion. The style of this score, written by Louis Andriessen, is intended to be evocative of Paris in the early 1930’s.

    Also available on audio archive starting tomorrow night on Donderdagavondserie archive:

    • Camille

      Phoenix--I was really getting interested in this until I read the dread words Louis Andriessen. He writes really poor vocal music. Important figure in Nederland but I have never heard anything I’ve liked. Thanks though. Interesting.

      • phoenix

        No, it isn’t the vocals that i’m interested to hear in this Anaïs Nin opera (there is probably more crooning than anything else going on vocally); it is Andriessen’s 8 piece band in it’s attempted 21st century evocation of early 1930’s music.
        — I have a personal thing for operas that evoke music styles of the 20th century … after all, that was “my time” … now i’m just waitin’ around. The first one I remember seeing/hearing live was going to NYCO for Sills & that great unforgettable diva, Frances Bible, in Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe.
        — with the exception of the radio station songs Polenzani does so well, i’m not so concerned about the “vocal” writing in most of John Harbison’s Great Gatsby (although it is very, very well sung), it’s the orchestration that sends me into 12th heaven. It’s a masterpiece for my pleasure & one of my favorite works of art.
        — so it is actually just curiosity why i’m interested in Anaïs Nin ~ it’s the band & what could possibly be Andriessen’s instrumental interpretation of early 1930’s Paris.
        -~-~- Off Topic, Camille, but i read those comments under Bellini Birthday article. I mean like I didn’t really want to say anthing over there because i don’t really care much about it, but I can’t believe BELLINI himself actually wrote those orchestrations in Norma with the same instrumentation & lineup the Met orchestra played when I was young & saw Norma until i got tired of it: saw Caballe, Sutherland, Verrett & Galvany all break the sacred mistletoe. Sometimes i do listen to the broadcasts of it on the internet because of course it has a great score, probably unmatched in the history of opera… it’s just that is’t not a favorite of mine, like others are. i’ll still never believe that Bellini (yes, the same Bellini of Sonnambula fluff!) wrote those orchestrations they way i heard them. Sorry~

        • Camille

          Never having seen an orchestral score of Norma and never having played in an orchestra performing Norma, I would not know how to respond. Perhaps the sum is greater than the parts?

          It is recorded that Rossini did touch up or at least suggest improvements of his I Puritani (the prequel to I Parterriani), in Paris, a few years later. I think it wrong to judge Bellini with our post-Wagnerian, post Schoenberg, post-modern, post-everything standards. You have to enter a time-warp (oh and please don’t anyone start with Rocky Horrow!) To try understand him. Neither do I consider Sonnambula “fluff”, it is simply a different genre, a quasi- “semi-seria”, as was much discussed on the Box in March 2009, when the new Zummerman production made its debut.

          No matter. You say to-mah-to and I say to-may-to.

          Yeah, Andriessen has a thang for that old jazzy stuff -- now I recall it. Hope you got something out of it.
          The opera I’d like to see is Anais Nin’s story “A spy in the house of love”.

          Good night phoenix. I don’t feel well and am foregoing the dubious delights of this broadcast carmencita.

          I always disliked Lana because of how she pinned the murder of Johnny Stompanato on her poor daughter. Talk of Imitation of Life!!!!!!!

  • phoenix

    Just listened to the Anaïs Nin opera. The singer-sprecherein Cristina Zavalloni speaks and croons in some French but mostly very clear USA California television dialect type english … that flat Lana Turner-Patricia Racette-Bernadette Peters-Stephen Sondheim Hollywood/Broadway kind of thing… she is quite good, probably the best thing about it… there is another man answering her back in French speaking but not singing… the band accompanies her quite well …
    — is this how it was in the early 1930’s Paris? it sounds more like early 1530’s Marseille … i missed something. I guess i’ll have to back & listen to it again

  • phoenix

    Again, you are correct, Camille. no musicologist here, just looking for entertainment. i understand what you are saying & actually i agree with you. If i want to appreciate some of these things, i have to dismiss that which came afterward.
    — Problem is Sonnambula, Puritani, Spontini’s & Rossini’s comedies, Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, these works represent things i think are wrong with opera but only from my closed-in little world. I’m not going by the book, you know. But Robert le Diable is one of my very favorite operas, and that was composed about the same time as …. it doesn’t seem to actually fall into an exact timeframe division, because i just looked at some old CD’s that i have & there are plenty of Meyerbeer (even found a l’Etoile du Nord with Futral that i like); there is Spontini’s Agnes von Hohenstaufen, Hernando Cortez (or the Conquest of Mexico) & la Vestale, all of which i remember liking very much. In addition, there are plenty (& i mean plenty) both on micro chips & CDs of Rossini’s Maometto II (my favorite Rossini); along with Moise et Pharon, Guillaume Tell & even a Semiramide or two. Donizetti is one of my favorite composers, so the line is blurred. I listen to Norma & I Capuletti when they are broadcast because i like them too, but not as much as the tragedies of Rossini.

    • phoenix

      and even Donizetti doesn’t get off the hook completely over here. despite the fact it has better music, donizetti’s terrible “Linda di Chaminoux” rivals Sonnambula & Puritani for the what i hate most about opera prize. I went to see it at Caramoor a few years back & like the soprano was as razor thin as her awful sounding voice; but it’s the plots of these things that finally do them in with the last swing of the ax.
      — And my best friend, who was a psychiatrist, always fought with me over what i complained about re: these abysmal plots: as far as i can see in all these most terrible operas, the prima donna’s sanity is always restored when she gets what she wants… my psychiatrist friend said that’s the way everybody is so he considered these opera plots truly “realistic”! Can you imagine how bizarre that logic? And from a doctor, too!

      • Indiana Loiterer III

        It must be comedy in general that you don’t like, then.

        • phoenix

          i guess so, “in general”, you are right. but just “in general” … there are exceptions such as l’Etoile du Nord, Don Pasquale, Falstaff, Lustigen Weiben von Windsor, Strauss’ Arabella & Ariadne auf Naxos (which are actually comedies, too). But i’m not the only who complains about some of those things i mentioned in the post above, there are other people i’ve seen write up about the fact that they don’t care for them either.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        They never seem so much insane to me as just blinded by grief, so I don’t find it difficult to accept that they turn out to be perfectly well again once they realise that things aren’t as bad as they thought they were. Maybe I’m interpreting too much, but then again you either do that, or go for the willing suspension of disbelief which comes to the same thing, or you just don’t get it at all.

        Do you find it OK if they just go mad and stay mad and then drop dead?

        • armerjacquino

          Hahaha, yes. The characters who die of ‘being in an opera’. See also: Isolde.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            And Elektra, which always seems like the worst of the lot -- poor girl gets what she wants and then is suddenly no more.

        • phoenix

          well, whether they drop dead or just keep on going & drop dead at some distant point in time, if they are “truly insane”, this being the age of DNA… that same psychiatrist did a 180 when discussing his own work. At the end of his working days, they had already figured out the DNA that causes schitzophrenia, depression, bipolar, pathological maladies etc. & he had studied this also. So what you are saying, in essence, is what I think he intended to convey also. These frivolous heroines such as Linda di Chaminoux, Puritani & Sonnambula aren’t really medically “insane”, they are merely pretentiously “distracted” because they aren’t getting they want when they want it. But that doesn’t make them heroic, does it?
          — You mention Isolde? Yes, she does seem to suffer from the same malady, but she is even more revengeful before she drinks the potion and much weaker after she’s done drinking it, than the other “distracted” heroines mentioned above. I mean like when you are dealing with a legendary mythical figure (although there probably was some orignal person to start the legend) like Isolde, it would have been who of Wagner to give her a little more dignity & nobility. After all, she does come off in that opera as sort of an Irish Cleopatra, not really very herioic… I remember very well those sharp-tongued, high boufantted Celtic Isoldes ranting their curses over in Hell’s Kitchen when I lived there in late 60’s.
          — But i guess wagner was really interested in the RELATIONSHIP between the lovers rather than the individual persona of either of them.
          — My favorite character in that opera is Kurwenal, his music & his persona, i love him most & his leitmotiv. the others i can take or leave, particuarly Brangaena.

          • Cocky Kurwenal

            It doesn’t make them heroic, but it doesn’t make the plots insufferably ridiculous either, IMO.

            Re Isolde, I’ve never really thought the potion was strictly necessary, at least not in a litteral way -- they have an awkward, tense relationship already, partly because of the unfortunate killing incident, but mostly because they are already in love of the dare not speak its name kind. All that happens in Act I, to me, is that they admit this to themselves and each other. You can either argue this makes her weak, and she should have been more of a final scene Tatyana about it all, or you can think it makes her strong, getting on for heroic.

          • Cocky: I agree. It would rather silly if this immense love — one of the most immense in all of opera — was just the result of a love potion. It’s because they think that they’re drinking a death potion that T & I feel free to express their real emotions to each other.

  • phoenix

    Ummm. Yes, the plot of Tristan und Isolde is not bad at all, it just doesn’t include enough stage time devoted to the most important events that occurred before King Marke ordered Tristan to bring Isolde to Cornwall to be his bride.