Friday May 30th, 2014 - Gotham Chamber Opera presenting the U.S. premiere performances of The Raven, a monodrama by Toshio Hosokawa, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s immortal narrative poem. Mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg and prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri take the leading roles with the chamber ensemble under Neal Goren's baton; Luca Veggetti staged and choreographed the opera. As a prelude, André Caplet's rarely heard Conte fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort rouge, inspired by another Poe work - The Mask of the Red Death - was performed by a quintet featuring harpist Sivan Magen.
The evening was engrossing both musically and visually; from the moment we entered the theater we were drawn to the stage by the shadow cast by Mr. Magen's harp. The players made ravishing sounds in the eerily colourful Caplet score, the harpist's pianissimo melismas delicately pricking the ear. The composer, in this conte fantastique, limns the tale of Prince Prospero who - with several guests - walls himself up in his castle to escape the plague. But Death finds him anyway. At one point Mr. Magen knocked on the wooden frame of his harp, a sinister effect.
Luca Veggetti had the excellent notion of creating a musical bridge between the Caplet and the Hosokawa by having the clarinetist play a sustained tone soon after the opening work ended. Other players took up the sound, an improvised entr'acte that prevented the audience lapsing into idle chatter as the stage was set for the opera.
The Raven takes place on a raked platform, imaginatively lit by Clifton Taylor. The mezzo-soprano sings/speaks the entire Poe narrative poem whilst the dancer moves about the space - is she is the Raven or the lost Lenore? - sometimes physically entwining herself with the singer.
Toshio Hosokawa's score creates a sonic tapestry which sets the singer's incantation in high relief. Winds and strings mingle voices with piano and percussion, evoking the eerie nocturnal visitation of the raven. The chill of an evening breeze sweeping thru a graveyard, the darkling shimmer of moonlight on a marble tomb, the icy shudder of tree roots shifting in the frost-covered ground: these illusions are musically expressed, deepening the mystery of the theatrical experience.
Fredrika Brillembourg offered a triple tour de force in her performance: she has mastered both lengthy and repetitive the texts of the poet and the sung-speech called for by the composer, and also the physicality of the director's staging in which the singer becomes an active counterpoise to the dancer. In the beginning, Ms. Brillembourg's speech had an exaggerated, measured slowness of expression; her narration later became more urgent. Her clarity of diction almost made the super-titles superfluous. In bursts of song, the mezzo revealed a vast range and a fine dynamic mastery: her vocal performance was engrossing at every moment. Ms. Brillembourg entered fully into the physical demands of the production, singing powerfully from improbable positions...
...and even at one point balancing Ms. Ferri on her up-turned feet, as in the childhood game of Flying Angels. [above photo by Richard Termine]
At the end of this marvelous portrayal, Ms. Brillembourg was rightfully cheered by the large audience who had experienced her riveting performance in a state of pin-drop silence.
Ms. Ferri was equally compelling, her slightest gesture or tilt of the head having a poetic quality that the greatest artists instinctively possess. I found my eyes constantly lured by her, even when she was merely standing still. Her silent presence spoke with the same authority as her singing colleague's, and together they made the strongest possible statement on behalf of the composer and the poet.
In an uncanny moment, while Ms. Ferri is kneeling at the far corner of the platform (above) her shadow suddenly rises and moves across the backdrop as if drawn by the sound of the music being played stage right. This theatrical trompe l'oeil literally gave me the chills, especially as it was so subtly done.
More images from The Raven, thanks to photographer Richard Termine:
Nothing but praise then for everyone involved in this excellent production: another feather in Gotham Chamber Opera's cap as they continue to play a vital role in the City's cultural realm.