Toshio Hosokawa / The Raven / Gotham Chamber Opera 5-31-14

If you have ever wondered how Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” would work as the libretto for an opera, there is now an answer. Toshio Hosokawa has written the music, and Gotham Chamber Opera has produced it – the production involves a chamber orchestra, a mezzo (Fredrika Brillembourg) who sings/narrates the poem, and a dancer (Alessandra Ferri, a former professional ballet dancer).

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The first item on the program was a separate work, a piece for string quartet with harp by André Caplet inspired by a different work of Poe’s, his short story “The Mask of the Red Death.” This involved some unusual harp sounds, i.e. hard plucking and banging on the harp’s frame, which looked forward to some of the tapping and rattling noises produced by the orchestra in “The Raven.” There were also projections on the screens at the back of the stage, which was a series of gray panels: one sees a moon, a moon with an eye in it, oblongs of light, sometimes filmed projections involving the faces of the singer and dancer in the later piece, with some movements – the dancer covering the singer’s face – that recur in “the Raven”; and at times an ominous golden light visible through the gaps between the panels.

According to the program notes, the production is influenced by both opera and Noh plays. As far as opera is concerned, the work strips the art form down to its most basic elements – a text, a singer with accompaniment, and some visual aspect (here, lighting and a dancer) that works in conversation with what one hears.

The text is sort of a narrative, sort of not – as the booklet points out, it’s more a “series of discomfiting moments.” (Although there are some conventional opera librettos that purport to be narratives but which could also be described in this way, whether intentionally or not.)

The opera began with speaking rather than singing. The singer’s delivery was slow and rather dreamlike, like someone drugged; by the second or third stanza of the poem she moved into singing, and back again. The spoken sections near the end were more natural, with the last “nevermore” whispered; the sound of the whisper faded into the breathy sound of wind players blowing through their instruments (this sound had occurred before, toward the beginning). There was no repetition or expansion of Poe’s text, and not much “operatic” ornament of the words, except for the bit right around the raven’s being from the “saintly days of yore.” The music reminded me of John Adams’s opera about Oppenheimer. Not in the sense that it sounded the same, but in that it’s not something I would seek out in audio-only form.

The role of the dancer seemed to be to express some of the interiority of the poem and to add tension, commentary or emphasis – at times the singer was supporting the dancer’s full weight, or was held in place or moved around by her; the dancing also evoked the narrator’s reactions to both his own memories and to the raven perched in his study. It felt well integrated with the musical aspect; not too obvious (the dancer doesn’t “represent” the raven in any obvious way) but not so abstract as to feel artificial or extraneous.