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Gotham Chamber Opera: The Raven

Brillembourg-and-Ferri, so perfectly matched as artists and collaborators, might never happen again no matter how much we might yearn for more and more of their shared art.

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[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left”  ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Reviewer[/avatar]

the Raven

Over a run of three evenings at the end of May, 2014 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Gotham Chamber Opera presented Andre Caplet’s Conte fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort Rouge and the American premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s 2008 operatic monodrama, The Raven, set to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous 1845 poem of the same name.

Members of the Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra performed Caplet’s brief chamber piece for string quartet and harp. Immediately after a brief intermission, conductor Neal Goren directed the thirteen-piece orchestra and mezz-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg in The Raven; as Brillembourg sang and the musicians played, dancer Alessandra Ferri danced with and around Brillembourg.

Luca Veggetti choreographed Brillembourg’s and Ferri’s dance movements; Veggetti also collaborated with Clifton Taylor (set and lighting design), Adam Larsen (projection design) and Peter Speliopoulos (costume design) in the creation of an evening of music and dance that magnified the beauty and significance of both Caplet’s and Hosokawa’s works. In fact, the remarkable success of the overall production of the Caplet and, especially, the Hosokawa resulted from an exciting collaboration that was wonderfully inspired and unique to the particular artists involved.

Although the preconcert excitement centered on Hosokawa’s The Raven, premiered to huge acclaim in 2012 in Brussels and long awaited here in this country, the performance of the Conte fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort Rouge by Andre Caplet (1878-1925) was noteworthy for its drama, rigor and surprising elegance. Trained first as a timpanist before devoting most of his energies to composing, Caplet was a friend and colleague of Debussy; he served with distinction in the French army during World War I and died as a result of pleurisy contracted after he was gassed in the trenches. Caplet’s Conte fantastique provides an instrumental account of Edgar Allen Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.

Caplet demanded more of the violins, viola, cello and harp as instruments than more conservative and traditional composers of his era typically did: only a timpanist could convert the harp into the percussive tick-tocking of death’s arrival in Poe’s story. Musicians Christopher Lee, Austin Hartman, Nardo Poy, Serafim Smigelsky and Sivan Magen presented Caplet’s demanding, exacting and constantly mood-shifting music with clear, tight and intense authority.

When the Caplet was over, the slightly raked performance surface on which the string quartet and harp had been placed was cleared; this became the stage-on-the-stage on which Brillembourg and Ferri performed The Raven.

The single text of the opera was Poe’s long poem, The Raven, originally published in 1845 and well-known ever since both in this country and in Europe. Hosokawa’s musical setting of the text is stunningly difficult: the mezzo-soprano is required to make her voice do virtually everything a voice can, from speaking to moaning, whispering to hollering, and chanting to trilling, all in addition to “regular” singing. Brillembourg’s rich, flexible and gorgeous voice did everything the composer required: her lush, wise musicality successfully conveyed the full complexity of Poe’s poetry together with the additional density of meanings infused by Hosokawa’s music.

Over the last fifteen years, Toshio Hosokawa, born in Hiroshima in 1955, has been much better known in Europe and in Japan than here in the United States. Now a resident of Berlin, Hosokawa has been widely honored throughout Europe. This wonderful 2014 presentation of The Raven in New york City should help to expand Hosokawa’s American reputation.

Hosokawa’s complex, rewarding and often unnervingly beautiful music presupposes the integration of Eastern and Western compositional idioms and styles that was innovative in the mid-twentieth century: what once had to be a deliberate strategy of stylistic combining can now be an easy and familiar musical vocabulary. What sets Hosokawa apart is his use of both European and Japanese musical traditions to explore a very particular set of aesthetic preoccupations and interests: he is particularly interested in music as sound in the middle of silence. In a 2011 interview in Berlin, Hosokawa said, “The calligraphy masters say that this space, where one cannot see – this silence, this white area – is just as important as linear movement… With my music, this silence, where one cannot hear, is also a part of the movement of sound energy (“Haunting Unpredictability,” William Robin, New York Times, 8/4/2011).”

The understanding of music as an exploration of the shifting relationship of sound and silence, of creation and emptiness echoes Poe’s purposes in The Raven: the story of a love lost and never to be recovered is also an exploration of constantly shifting experiences of discovery and loss, hope and despair, communion and isolation, life and death. These restlessly dynamic dichotomies themselves exist in parts of our beings – memory, anticipation, dreams, nightmares – whose boundaries and borders are ceaselessly fluid. The unnerving anxiety that permeates The Raven and is one of its main subjects emanates precisely from the realization that there is no fixed or secure place within ourselves to quietly settle down and safely consider the actual meanings of our lives. Hosokawa’s remarkable music, with its constant migrations from drama to void and back, from sensuality and lushness to angularity and grit, and from storm to silence constitutes, among other things, an astonishing revelation of Poe’s depiction of perpetually downward-pitched bottomlessness.

In his 1876 elegiac and near mystical sonnet Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, Stephane Mallarme identified questions of death and oblivion, of poetic ideals made ignoble by being unremembered, and of symbols’ power to both preserve and transcend reality as the definitive elements of Poe’s literary legacy. These all figure in Hosokawa’s musical setting of The Raven and contribute to its identifiably “Western” character. But The Raven, by Hosokawa’s own account, also derives some of its vocabulary from the centuries-old Japanese Noh tradition. As Veggetti observed in his “Notes on the Production” in The Raven program booklet, “In his setting of the notorious poem by E. A. Poe, Hosokawa draws an analogy with Japanese Noh, a unique theatrical tradition based on a synthesis of music, poetry and dance. The non-anthropocentric nature of Noh allows for the human, animal and vegetal world to be in direct dialogical relationship to one another.”

Hosokawa’s decision to have the male narrator role of Poe’s poem be taken by a female singer, thereby recasting issues of gender in both Poe’s story and in our responses to it, was in some senses replicated and expanded upon by Veggetti’s vision of the work as a dance. When The Raven premiered in Brussels in 2012, it was “merely” sung: the dance element was new to this 2014 American premiere.

As this Raven undoes traditional notions of gender by having a mezzo-soprano sing the “story,” Veggetti and his collaborators – especially former American Ballet Theater prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri and Brillembourg herself – undo traditional notions of body and spirit, of tangibility and illusion, and of visibility and invisibility by having Brillembourg and Ferri dance together as Brillembourg sings. The two women, who are strikingly similar physically – Ferri a smaller, more ethereal version of Brillembourg – were dressed in identical grey tops and pants with black dance-sneakers; both wore their hair pulled back in long pony-tails. Brillembourg, singing and dancing, accomplished the remarkable feat of quite literally demonstrating her body to be her instrument. And Ferri was, at every moment, a creature whose very nature was its inability to be defined. Ferri was Brillembourg’s spirit, her soul, her muse, her encourager and her tormentor, her goad and her comforter.

The two women sometimes moved parallel to each other or were each other’s mirrors. They stood; they sat; they lay on their shared ground. They entangled and intertwined themselves; they lifted and embraced each other … all while Brillembourg sang and Ferri was her silence.

The choreography itself displayed the two women’s multiplicity of roles. Ferri’s gestures and movements gathered in whole centuries of traditional choreographic vocabularies as she moved from priestly blessings to parental caress, from sensuous invitation to innocence preserved. Sometimes her dancing anticipated the music’s instrumental or vocal movements and sometimes it was their resolution and conclusion. Ferri was integral to Brillembourg’s performance; movement was musical sound’s manifestation in the physical world. The artistry of each of the two women, here conjoined, embodied both Hosokawa’s intentions and Poe’s.

The entire evening was unified in a single production concept. Throughout the Caplet, projected images of portions of Brillembourg’s and Ferri’s faces on the back wall of the stage prefigured dance elements of The Raven; in one brilliant, unexpected moment during The Raven, a projected image of Ferri briefly constituted a third presence – a spirit, a memory, a fantasy; a projection – in the dance.

Brillembourg’s final whisper of Poe’s last word, “Nevermore!” was perfectly astonishing. She made the word simultaneously one – “nevermore” – and two – “never, more” – and summarized in that single sung breath the work of art itself as the subject of the evening: once over, this particular account of this particular piece will never again happen in this world. Brillembourg-and-Ferri, so perfectly matched as artists and collaborators, might never happen again no matter how much we might yearn for more and more of their shared art. Yet the art, once created, lives in the dynamic domain of our memories, taking on its own life and purposes. Poe has achieved his immortality and Hosokawa has separated silence from itself by his music.

What an amazing experience.

Gotham Chamber Opera: The Raven, music by Toshio Hosokawa, libretto by Edgar Allen Poe
May 31, 2014
The Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College
524 West 59th Street
New York, NY 10019
Gotham Chamber Opera
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036

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