“Music of our time” makes a rewarding evening, as does SFO’s Eugene Onegin
By Peter Alexander Aug. 10 at 10:45 p.m.
The Santa Fe Opera’s stunning world premiere production of John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries provided a fascinating and rewarding evening in the theater. The composer has total command of his materials and especially the orchestra, which creates a unique and powerful sound world for this loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This is music of our time, but mood and color are so manifest and so managed that the opera is easily appreciated and followed from beginning to end. There are moments of sheer loveliness, especially from the strings. To use a favored cliché of contemporary music criticism, The Lord of Cries is eminently accessible.
True, there are few memorable melodies—a lullaby and the ersatz children’s song “To do right is to be good” are exceptions—but the voice parts are nonetheless lyrical and singable, always complimentary to the voice. The vocal lines follow the words carefully, so that it never sounds tortured. In spite of moments of distress, passion and tumult from the orchestra, the texture is carefully managed to make the words understandable. This is music that communicates.
Conductor Johannes Debus managed the complex score with aplomb. He supported the singers well, keeping the orchestra under careful control when necessary, but he also built momentum in the climactic scenes, particularly the storm and the dramatic act endings. The perfectly natural stage direction by James Darrah worked so effortlessly as to be almost imperceptible.
Adam Riggs’s unit set comprises peach-colored walls and 19th-century lampposts, which projections enhance to suggest specific locations or reflect the drama. The projections by Adam Larsen are mostly abstract patterns or, in one case, a storm at sea that becomes part of the drama.
The walls and lampposts are shifted for the second act. This is minimalist stage design at its best, open enough for anything to happen, only minimally burdened with symbolic weight—carcasses at the end representing the consumption of flesh by the vampire and his victims/accomplices, for example.
The libretto is presented as a mashup of Dracula with Euripides’s Bacchae, with the diabolical protagonist both Dracula and Dionysus (both names are used in the text). This reflects similarities of plot, but Lord of Cries is anything but a straight setting of either story. The characters have the same names as in Stoker’s Victorian-era novel, but they are mixed up and transformed to create a new story with similar characters, standing on its own without dependence on literary sources.
Dracula is the reincarnation of Dionysus, come to Victorian London; Dr. Seward, a follower and student of Van Helsing in the original novel, becomes the de-facto regent of London, bending everyone to his commands; Van Helsing, the learned prosecutor of vampires in the original, is largely Seward’s factotum in the opera; and Lucy becomes the wife of a deeply disturbed Jonathan Harker rather than the fiancée of Arthur Holmwood. Other characters from the novel are missing entirely, except for a rare oblique reference. Fans of the novel may find it confusing, but in the context of the opera it is all clear and well laid out.
In fact, one of the strengths of the opera is that Mark Adamo’s excellent libretto is so well laid out that it requires no prior preparation. This is in contrast to Corigliano’s one previous, overstuffed opera, Ghosts of Versailles, premiered 30 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. The clarity and directness of The Lord of Cries makes one wish that Corigliano had not taken so long to find the right subject for his second opera.
One character has been added to help tell the story: a Correspondent for London’s Westminster Gazette, a speaking part who reads newspaper reports of the frightening events taking place. Kevin Burdette, a bass who sings Peter Quince in Midsummer Night’s Dream, proclaims his part with sometimes overloaded enunciation. It may seem exaggerated, but even with the orchestra at full cry you will not miss a word of his essential narration.
Apprentice Kathryn Henry took the crucial role of Lucy as a late substitute. This is a huge role, and as the only individual female character, she carries a large portion of the opera on her shoulders. Henry triumphed in the part. Her lovely lyric voice met every expressive demand, from her plaintive moments of deep emotion in Act I to the tense, dramatic encounter with Dionysus/Dracula in Act II. “Hush, Darling, hush,” her lullaby to her tortured husband Jonathan in the second act, was especially moving.
Tenor David Portillo sang the part of Jonathan Harker, a man beyond the edge of madness. He negotiated the vocal leaps, near screams and whimpers of the most extreme part in the opera. His strong dramatic voice is ideal for the expression and style Harker requires. With excellent diction and plenty of power he made every word tell.
The part of asylum director and near-dictator of London Jon Seward runs from tenderness to wild outbursts, often in the same number. Baritone Jarrett Ott negotiated all of that and more as Seward descends into his own madness at the end. Both the rigid moralist and the mad convert to Dionysus’s cult were convincingly portrayed.
Matt Boehler brought a deep, resonant voice to Van Helsing. For much of the opera, he has little to do but respond to Seward’s commands, but Boehler also contributed a sepulchral presence and a brief moment of drama. In the other fully human role, the captain of the ship that runs aground with Dracula on board, Robert Stahley was a sturdy and booming presence as he calls out entries from the ship’s log.
But it is the un-dead that create the drama. The “Three weird Sisters,” attendants of Dionysus, were sung by apprentice artists Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein and Megan Moore, who gave a class in ensemble singing such than no one could be judged individually. The trio span the full range of the female voice, with extreme highs and growling lows used strategically by Corigliano and sung with fierce intensity by the young artists.
But it is the role of Dionysus/Dracula by which this opera stands or falls. Santa Fe was lucky to have countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for this role. His unique voice and widely-seen performance in the title role of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at the Met have justifiably made him a superstar, and his performance as Dionysus was stunning.
As Dionysus he invests every phrase with meaning through phrasing, diction and movement. His remarkably beautiful voice is well controlled in all registers,. He is equally powerful dramatically, making his showdown with Lucy, where he breaks down her resistance and dooms her to a tragic end, the dramatic highpoint it must be.
Stoker’s Dracula is steeped in the respectable religiosity of Victorian England, but the opera incorporates Dionysus’s reply. From beginning to end, we see that Dr. Seward’s conventional pieties have no effect. The god’s appeals to inner desires overcome restraint again and again. This is the message that The Bacchae and Dracula have in common: you dare not deny “The Lord of Cries.” He will have his place.
Or in the words of the libretto, “You may assuage the priest without, but not the beast within.”
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For lovers of Romantic opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as rewarding as anything the SFO presented this summer. Completely Romantic in style and deeply Russian in character, it is doubtless one of the great operas of the 19th century.
The production opens on the veranda of the Larin estate in the Russian countryside. Gary McCann’s largely traditional scenic design makes use of the SFO’s location, with rural fields in the set opening to a vista of the northern New Mexico landscape. McCann’s costumes are mostly in period style, 19th-century informal dress for the country, glittery and formal for St. Petersburg.
There are some unexpected twists added to this traditional conception: due to COVID, the chorus is seated just outside the theater facing the stage, and their place onstage is taken by dancers who wear elaborate headdresses and (symbolic?) fencing masks. Some of the headdresses suggest Native American design, others recall Dia de los Muertos imagery. The elaborate ball gowns in Act III are topped by sparkly human and animal skulls.
But the dancers, including members of the Wise Fool New Mexico company, do more than take the place of the traditional chorus onstage. As choreographed by Athol Farmer, they come and go on a logic all their own, sometimes surrounding the singers, at other times leaving them alone on stage.
Confusingly, they were onstage when Onegin met Tatyana for their very private conversation about her letter. But for Lensky’s violent disruption of Tatyana’s name-day celebration and his rash dueling challenge to Onegin—a scene that is all the more shocking because it takes place before the assembled guests—the dancers are absent, leaving only the two disputants on stage. This baffling reversal of settings works against the sense of the story.
Dancers aside, Alessandro Talevi’s stage direction served the Pushkin/Tchaikovsky story well. The characters were well delineated, the blocking was efficient and clear, and the drama moved powerfully to its inevitable conclusion: resolute for Tatyana, crushing for Onegin.
Conductor Nicholas Carter led the orchestra in a performance of heart-on-the-sleeve passion and great flexibility. This was Russian Romanticism at its most evocative, from gentle lyricism to full orchestral climaxes. The production was greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Matt Haskins, particularly the lovely sunrise following Tatyana’s night of letter writing.
The opera is as much Tatyana’s as Onegin’s. In this central role, Sara Jakubiak—a returning 2007 apprentice making her SFO debut—was compelling. She projected a lovely sound in her gentle moments but did not always keep her strong voice under control. Her critical letter-writing scene—in which very little writing takes places as she shares her racing thoughts aloud—was performed with deep and true expression. Her transformation to a dignified princess in the final scene was convincingly portrayed in voice and posture.
Lucas Meachem lent a slight edge to his attractive baritone to express Onegin’s coldness and empty heart. His transformation from the superficial society dandy in the first acts to the suffering but still self-absorbed antihero of the final act was total. He and Jakubiak worked ably together to complete the reversal of positions, as she delivers a sermon even more devastating, and more deserved, than his in the first act.
Turkmenistani tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev brought a light, lyrical voice to the role of Lensky, ardent as the young poet must be, able to soar smoothly into his top range. His solo scene before his fatal duel with Onegin was a highlight, Lensky’s longing and his ultimate despair evident in his voice.
As Olga, Avery Amereau sang with a rich alto, projecting well into her lowest register. She captured well the flighty manner of Tatyana’s less mature younger sister. Deborah Nansteel sang the role of Filipyevna, Tatyana’s aging nurse, with a well supported voice and sympathetic nature. She paired well with a solid and dignified Katharine Goeldner as Mme. Larina.
Matthew DiBattista sang Triquet’s couplets with elegance. James Creswell’s rich voice and smooth phrasing made Prince Gremin’s third act aria on the gift of love another vocal high point. The full-voiced chorus added punch to both ball scenes.
This beautifully rendered Romantic opera was the perfect conclusion to my week at the Santa Fe Opera. From Mozart’s Figaro to Corigliano’s Lord of Cries, it is a season of dazzling variety and great accomplishment. The season runs to Aug. 27, with performances of all four operas still to come.
NOTE: Corrected Aug. 11 to include recognition of Matt Haskins’s lighting design in Eugene Onegin, inadvertently omitted in the original version of this story.