Aethelred, ready and on stage

unready_thumb“It was during a prolonged losing streak of the New York Yankees,” writes composer Richard Wilson, “that, musing on the subject of failure, I decided to write an opera about Aethelred the Unready.”

And so he did, writing both libretto and music to a one-act opera in seven scenes.  

The droll Aethelred the Unready, written in 1994, has evaded its own message about the acceptance of failure and is now enjoying its first fully staged production. It’s funny, often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also surprisingly touching, because the fear of underachieving plagues us all.

Baritone Robert Osborne inhabits the comic title role with abandon and charm. The effective, efficient production is directed by Drew Minter (who in an earlier performance played Clio) and conducted by the composer. Aethelred the Unready opened Saturday, January 22 at the Vogelstein Center at Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY) as part of Modfest 2011.

As the opera opens, a man in slippers and plaid pajamas lazes in an armchair. He yawns, rubs his eyes, leafs through a magazine, dozes.

La Musica, in an alternately florid and percussive recitative accompanied by harpsichord, introduces him as “history’s dimmest lightbulb.” The sleepy man in slippers is our unready hero.

Aethelred’s first three lines, sung in response to his wife’s harangues, are:

“Yes, my love.”

“Yes, my dear.”

“No doubt, my dear.”

Aethelred did in fact exist: he lived from around 965 to 1016, and became King of England around the age of ten. He began life with an unfortunate incident: at his baptism, the infant Aethelred defiled the font and was cursed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once king, he was plagued by constant invasions from the Danes, to which his primary response was to pay off the invaders rather than to fight heroically. Many of his noblemen descended into revolt and treason.

At one point, as Denmark’s King Swein gained support in England, he fled to Normandy; Aetheldred returned to the throne when Swein died two years later. His nickname “unrede” actually means “the ill-advised,” but history’s mistranslation is understandable.

In 1002, Aethelred married a woman named Emma, whom the chronicler William of Malmesbury (1096-1143) characterized as a relentless nag. Both Emma and William appear in Wilson’s opera.

The eleventh-century characters are only a starting point: the opera is set in the present day. Aethelred may be the subject, but the ambitious Emma drives the action. After a millenium of unreadiness, she wants history to upgrade Aethelred’s epithet:

“No more ‘Aethelred the Unready, with knees unsteady.’ Rather, ‘Aethelred the Aggressive, with posture impressive’… Or Aethelred the Ardent! Aethelred the Urgent! Aethelred the Inexhaustible!”

The hen-pecked king goes along with her plan (of course) but would be content with “Aethelred the Adequate.”

And thus the plot is launched. Wilson imagines his characters making a petition to Clio, the Muse of History, at an upcoming Tribunal that offers “the chance to adjust reputations, to define outcomes.” Clio flirts with William of Malmesbury, who is dearly fond of the Saxon kings and is the primary real-life source for information on Aethelred. Emma, in her determination, enlists the services of a hypnotist and a sleazy publicist.

The opera is quirky, whimsical, and endearing. It’s funny throughout. It’s also, ultimately, poignant. What are our accomplishments, and what do they signify? What will be remembered of us a thousand years hence?

After his dismal failure to convince Clio to upgrade his nickname, Aethelred finally grows a spine. The antagonists – Emma, Clio, the publicist, the hypnotist – sing in a solemn, self-important chorale: “Advancement, status, and clout.” “Drivel! Detritus!” Aethelred retorts. The quartet’s entreaties are punctuated by taunting percussion and slide whistle that become increasingly agitated as Aethelred sends them away, one by one. His last lines: “I’ve taken all I intend to take / And will now be left in peace.” In other words: it is what it is.

Wilson’s harmonic language is largely atonal and freely dissonant. But the textures are clear, and the gestures often classical in outline, so that the dissonance feels abstract rather than aggressive. The melodic lines are frequently angular, and rhythms shift abruptly, often to comic or dramatic effect.

Recurring motives, such as a graceful cascade in the piano or harpsichord, help tie separate moments together. The dirge underscoring Aethelred’s story of his “baptismal embarrassment” exemplifies the score’s droll humor, as does the light pizzicato section where the publicist promises, “Hypnosis can embolden the mousiest mouse.”

The vocal lines (aided by the singers’ careful diction) nearly always shine through, and the rhythm of the language feels natural. The text-setting is often colorful, with wide leaps punctuating pointed or humorous words, gentle lines for moments of tenderness, and sudden melismas on surprising but effective words, as in William’s long, searching “Um.”

And there are moments of lyricism. In the last scene, after sending the publicist away, Aethelred sings a mournful medieval song of love and rejection. The open fifths, low vocal tessitura, and dark-hued low winds make this a beautiful, affecting interlude.

The fourteen-member chamber orchestra (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano/harpsichord, 2x percussion, string quartet, double bass) played with precision and bite under Wilson’s economical gestures. The balanced sound left plenty of aural space for the vocalists. They were seated upstage, behind the set, visible but unobtrusive.

Aethelred the Unready does not require elaborate staging. Its action depends on conversations, usually one-on-one. The set enhanced this quality by providing separate spaces for the four supporting characters. These elevated, raked platforms displayed the tools of each inhabitant’s trade: a large clock for the Hypnotist, stacks of leather-bound books for William, a vaguely Gothic throne for Clio, and a contemporary desk and laptop for the Publicist, who sat under a looming, larger-than-life image of a cell phone. The lighting (designed by Chris Brusberg) was simple and subtle.

Holly Hummel’s costumes were humorous and to the point. One of the best touches was Aethelred’s crown, which he placed securely on his head after buttoning up his pin-striped suit. (In a precisely timed moment, he zipped up his fly while singing of his desecration of the  baptismal font.) La Musica and Clio wore shimmery, contemporary updates of flowing Greek garb, with garish headdresses. The Hypnotist, who turned out to be a rather sympathetic character, was dressed in a doctor’s white coat. The Publicist sported a loud striped shirt, black blazer, and jeans, and when not fondling his Blackberry he played insouciantly with a yo-yo.

Baritone Robert Osborne sang the role of Aethelred with hidden strength. Outwardly, he cowered, quaked, and hesitated. His clear, commanding voice and earnest, deadpan delivery carried lines from the honest discouragement of “You will find me beyond reach of your skill” to the nonsensical “Who but I was phlegmatic in Schenectady?”

With her rich voice and bustling energy, soprano Rachel Rosales made Emma a delightful nag to watch. Mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger flirted, preened, and sniffed as the self-important Clio. The Muse of History holds the power in this story, which Nessinger portrayed alongside the character’s concurrent self-important silliness. Her flirtations with William of Malmesbury were particularly entertaining.

Tenor James Ruff brought a light, gentle voice (he frequently sings early music) to the character of William. He brought out the caricature of the role: buried in books, flirting with Clio, easily distracted by thoughts of glorious Saxon kings.

The clear-voiced soprano Christine Howlett was very funny as La Musica, opening the opera with the Prologue (“O beleaguered audience…”). As Clio’s assistant, her gestures seemed awkward at first. But she hit her stride, particularly when parrying Aethelred and Emma with cold smiles before their meeting with Clio.

Bass Curtis Streetman demonstrated a brawny tone and wide range in the role of the Hypnotist. Tenor Nathan Carlisle swaggered as the smarmy Publicist. But as the one truly modern-day role, with its accouterments of laptop and cell phone, the Publicist’s staging suffered from an excess of cliché. Why does he brandish his Blackberry when talking about a “stunning new plan” for Aethelred? Clearly, the Blackberry symbolized the Publicist’s drive for shallow self-promotion and gratification by any means. But it was sometimes used because it was there, rather than as a useful or necessary prop in a particular moment.

The performers’ diction was excellent, but the decidedly American pronunciation seemed somewhat out of place. Not that any contemporary British dialect would be any closer to eleventh-century speech, but it seemed an odd choice, or perhaps a default.

Wilson confessed that he sees some of Aethelred in himself. That honesty is the opera’s substance. If the work’s only accomplishment were to poke fun at an obscure, unaccomplished historical figure, it would feel empty. But Aethelred’s ability to come to terms with himself turns the opera into something more. The most effective humor is rooted in truth.

Aethelred the Unready opened Saturday, January  22 at the Vogelstein Center at Vassar College (Poughkeepsie, NY) as part of Modfest 2011. It continues Sunday, Jan. 23 at 3pm at Vassar and Tuesday, Jan. 25 at 8pm at Symphony Space.