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Poe’s Mysteries Almost Unveiled

New York
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College
05/28/2014 -  & May 29, 30, 2014
Gotham Chamber Opera Presents:
André Caplet: Conte Fantastique
Toshio Hosokawa: The Raven (U.S. Premiere)

Fredrica Brillembourgh (Mezzo-soprano), Alessandra Ferri (Dancer)
Sivan Magen (Harp), Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra, Neal Goren (Artistic Director, Conductor)
Luca Veggetti (Stage Director, Choreographer), Clifton Taylor (Lighting Design), Peter Speliopoulos (Costume Design)

The mystery of Edgar Allen Poe was compounded by the opening production of the New York Phil Biennial last night.

Was this Raven astunning Monodrama? (Er, no). Opera? (Not exactly.) Ballet? (That isn’t right...) Was it a combination of an instrumental Masque of the Red Death and a vocal Raven?? Were the changing of the charcoal-grey walls into fiery red walls an intimation of Pit and the Pendulum?? (Hardly sufficient.)

Let’s say that it’s impossible to change Edgar Allen Poe into another genre. Debussy tried, but his House of Usher–which was also in the same Gerald Lynch Theater some years ago– became unfinished fragments. Roger Sessions’ Masque of the Red Death was no more than clever. The influences of Poe on Scriabin and Mussorsgsky and Ravel were infinite, yet none (save Rachmaninoff’s symphonic Bells) could conceive of any work which could encompass the genius of this great American writer.

So now Toshio Hosokawa has put his pen to Poe’s picture of insanity. And in the Gotham Chamber Opera production last night, if The Raven defied classification, it came close to picturing Poe’s eerie enigmas. For the simple reason that Hosokawa understood that to make The Raven achieve its goal. Poet’s words were sufficient. One needed onto blend shadowy actions, and the sheer horror of its insanity.

I’m unsure what the NY Phil Biennial is supposed to achieve, but their concerts throughout Manhattan until June 7 will be as hopefully mysterious as last night. Actually we had two pieces influenced by Poe. The stage was dominated first by a harp and four chairs, to play the rare Fantastic Tale by Debussy confidant André Caplet. While the harp/string-quartet sounded like Debussy’s Sacred and Profane Dances, Caplet was telling the story of Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, starting with the dances of a nobleman, continuing through a musical castle–and the walls changing color and adding a blinking eye or two–until the final black plague death with suitable dissonance.

No applause, but a black stage now, a solo clarinet, a warming up, and orchestra to the side...and the drama continued on this stage with The Raven. One cannot quite describe Fredrica Brillembourgh here. In the 50 minutes of the work, she recited The Raven directly. Yet it wasn’t recitation. It was part chanting, part moaning, at times it was singing and moving her mezzo-tones to the topmost range to the bottom.

Such an atonal monodrama has been done before. It reeks of Schoenberg and Lulu, of course. But Ms. Brillembourgh affected us with the surprise as much as the effects. We never knew which phrases of the poem would be cantillated so slowly or reach into moments of near hysteria.

And that was partly the point. In Japanese Noh drama, women’s parts are played by men, so this male part was played by a mezzo–showing the fantasy, the untruth of the poem–since the gender was irrelevant. This was, after all, a descent into madness. And insanity confuses every presupposition of reality we might have.

Add to this now the ballet movements, sometimes by the mezzo, but always by Alessandra Ferri, a bit shorter but dressed exactly as the mezzo soloist. Sometimes they followed, imitated, sometimes embraced, sometimes shadowed each other in time to the recitation and the orchestral music.

Ms Ferri was, yes, the Raven. But who was she really here? She could have been a real raven, for her posture at rest was like the mythical bird, sometimes in shadows actually moving from her avian stature. Was she the mad obsession of the lover who had lost his love? Was she the doppelganger? That ghost who we share with others? I saw her as neither of these, but as an incubus, a demon who infects us as we sleep (for this insanity was a kind of sleep-singing), who drives us to our mind’s chaos.

The very idea that we never knew who Ms. Ferri’s “raven” could have been made the mystery even more terrifying, more mysterious. Those who compare Edgar Allen Poe with Stephen King are partly right. The difference is that King brings the mysteries of present-day New England to the fore. Poe, constantly on the move in pre-Civil War America, was as obsessed with the Middle Ages and the Dark Ages as his own day, and instead of mere spiritual enigmas, Poe gave us time-trips which were unimaginable with King. (Though Kubrik’s Stephen King movie, The Shining, came close to these riddles.)

Accompanying these two were the 13 players of the Gotham Chamber Opera led by their regular conductor Neal Goren. The music was not surprising. We had trills, lyrical measures, sudden chords–and of course the Raven’s tap-tap-tapping, this on the body of the double-bass.

Yet one should not separate dancer, singer and players. They were part of a single obsessive production which was as horrifying as one would want. Edgar Allen Poe was not looking for screams or shudders. In his tales of horror, and this rare poem of horror, Poe, a student of classic literature and alcoholic dementia. looked to set the scene, to build up the questions and then to enwrap us in his hallucination. With Toshia Hosokawa–whose songs will be performed tonight–the hell of Poe wasn’t totally achieved, since nobody can duplicate this writing. Yet we experienced a musical purgatory, leaving us suspended with unnamed horrors and spectral suffering.

Harry Rolnick



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