Fort Worth — On Tuesday evening at the Scott Theatre, The Forth Worth Opera presented two one act operas based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the Gothic horror tale of the macabre. The gathering storms outside the theater, with dire threats of tornadoes, perfectly set the mood for those of us who braved the threatening skies to attend. (Fortunately, the evening ended before the storms arrived.)
These two new operas are part of a series of operas based on Poe’s works, commissioned by the American Lyric Theater. This is an organization founded by stage director Lawrence Edelson in 2005 with the goal of creating a new body of operatic repertoire by supporting composers and librettists. Bravo!
In the 19th century, the public was fascinated by the concept of being buried alive. Medical science was in its infancy and a catatonic state could easily be mistaken for being death. The press sought out such stories when they were discovered by exhumations and printed them in lurid detail.
Urban legend has it that the original meaning of holding a wake after someone died was just that—sitting around for a few days just to make sure that the departed actually were gone and didn’t “wake.” In fact, there was a number of designs for “safety coffins” to alert the living in such a case. Most of these had wires attached to the hands of the corpse that lead to bells mounted on the surface. Some slang dictionaries cite this practice as the origin of the term “dead ringer,” meaning that someone so closely resembles the dead that they think that it is that person rescued from their grave.
Poe himself was morbidly fixated by a fear of being the victim of such a situation. The two stories on which these operas are based both deal with this very subject. While it makes for some dramatic opera, two of them in a row were too much of a macabre thing. Pairing them with something else, anything else, would make for a less gruesome evening. Perhaps it was the effect of a precipitous drop in barometric pressure brought by an impending massive storm that night but, by the end of the second opera, the air in the theater was noticeable heavier.
The talented young cast did double duty, singing roles in both operas.
The first opera is appropriately named Buried Alive, with music by Jeff Myers on a libretto by Quincy Long, and directed by Edelson. It is based on Poe’s story The Premature Burial, but only the promised ending remains.
Much like the FWO’s major premiere opera this season, JFK (running in rotation with these two one acts), Buried Alive is purposely vague about the line between hallucination and reality. Victor, a painter struggling to finish his magnum opus, finds himself covered with a sheet and on a metal gurney. He sees it as being in the morgue but when his wife, Elena, is present, he appears to be in a hospital. Three bizarre attendants change, like in a trick photo, from morgue workers with embalming fluid to finish him off to a medical staff with a sedative to calm his hysteria. The sedative is finally delivered and he wakes to discover that he is, indeed, buried alive.
How he got that way is left to our imaginations. The physicians would have known about the sedative and there is no waking possible once embalming fluid is administered. Never mind that little detail because the situation allows for some intense operatic singing. His cries of terror go unheard as shovels of fluorescent dirt are tossed on him from above.
The Cask of the Amontillado is another of Poe’s short stories about entombment of the living, but this time purposely done to punish the victim. As in the first opera, Embedded, with music by Patrick Soluri and a libretto by Deborah Brevoort, uses only the final outcome of Poe’s grisly tale and updates the action to today’s headlines. Embedded, which is directed by Sam Helfrich, was in Fort Worth Opera’s first year of Frontiers in 2013, making it the first Frontiers entry FWO has given a full production.
The plot revolves around the situation of an aging news anchor and a young voracious replacement eager to move ahead. The 1950 movie All About Eve, a vehicle for Bette Davis, immediately comes to mind, as does one of the subplots of Jake Heggie/Gene Scheer’s opera Great Scott, premiered with much success by The Dallas Opera in 2015. But this situation is played out innumerable times every day in situations from big business to social clubs.
Set in a television newsroom, Embedded follows the veteran news anchor Sylvia, who feels the hot breath of Victoria, the much younger and very talented newcomer. Sylvia is approached by a mysterious figure who offers her a chance to cover what he promises will be the biggest story of her career. She, of course, agrees.
He lures her into the Holland Tunnel with a mysterious singing GPS unit just as a terrorist sets off two bombs, one on either end of the tunnel. She is hopelessly trapped, but a cellphone provided by the stranger along with the GPS enables her to cover the story of her own death as it is happening—live, as it were. Once again, the situation offers the opportunity for some intense singing and panicked acting.
Both operas have set the words as they would be spoken, a device called recitativo accompagnato in an earlier era. We have extended soliloquies but not much resembling an aria or duet. This appears to a practice, becoming more and more common, in opera these days. Probably, this parlando style is descended from Wagner and the dawn of modern opera with Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. We also see this treatment used to great effect in musical theater pieces, such as Stephen Sondheim’s chatty Into the Woods.
All of the singers in both operas were terrific vocally, which was expected. But the most noticeable thing about the cast is what fine acting chops they all displayed. The era of the park and bark opera of the 1950’s is truly gone, as this cast now two generations later, proves. The acting ability of these young performers is on a par with any that we see in professional theater productions or on film and today’s composers and librettists take this as a given. Both Embedded and Buried Alive require this level of acting to pull off.
As Victor in Buried Alive, Christoper Burchett sang the role with conviction. He used his lyric baritone and crisp diction to create a wide range of expression. He was completely believable in his panicked terror at the end as he screamed for help when he realized he was in a coffin. Because he was in nothing but boxer shorts the whole time, we could see his physical acting: his strain against the bonds that held him on the gurney, his struggle to breathe, finally collapsing from suffocation.
The other roles were purposely vague as to exactly who they were in this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plot line. Were they ghoulish evildoers trying to kill Victor or where they a medical team trying to save him? Thus, the acting was also exaggerated to the point of satire of a 1950’s film noir. Soprano Maren Weinberger was convincing as Victor’s wife, Elena, as both desperately trying to save him and being the driving force behind the team scheming to do him in. Caroline Worra, who possesses a Wagnerian supersized soprano voice, was particularly gruesome as she wielded her huge hypodermic like a Ninja’s sword.
Nathan Stark added a touch of reality as a gravedigger, sitting on the edge of the stage the whole time, waiting for everything to be over so he could finish filling in the grave and go home. Two other singers, Anna Laurenzo and Brian Wallin, took multiple roles.
Caroline Worra put her Brünnhilde-sized voice to good use as the aging newscaster in Embedded. With a huge shock of wild blonde hair, she drove her characterization of Sylvia mercilessly from confidence to insecurity to determination to panic to death. Brian Wallin offered some comic relief, which Buried Alive could have used, as the studio makeup man, who he played as the gay-best-friend a woman like Sylvia needs. Maren Weinberger portrayed Victoria, the slinky young talent looking to push Sylvia out of the anchor chair. Christopher Burchett was the producer of the news show: a man in charge but one who has already surrendered to Victoria’s charms as much as her talent. Nathan Stark was marvelous as the mysterious man who lures Sylvia to her doom in the Holland Tunnel.
Musically, both of these operas are firmly in today’s neo-tonal school while using big helpings of techniques inherited from the 20th century. Embedded relies on minimalism and passacaglia and ostinato techniques (a constantly repeated melodic or harmonic pattern used as a basis underneath the music).
An aside: Getting scores to us critics ahead of time would have resulted in a much more detailed discussion of the music. More and more, opera companies are doing this (Santa Fe had copies of Jenifer Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, available in the press room). Fort Worth, now striving to build a reputation for championing new operas, should follow this practice in the future.
However, the most arresting musical difference, obvious to the listener, was in the use of the small chamber orchestra. Myers’ scoring in Buried Alive gave the impression of a collection of solo instruments that parried off in ever changing combinations. However, Soluri created a much more orchestral sound from the forces available. Both scores were excellently written but it was interesting to hear that the effect coming out of the pit with the same instrumentation was completely different. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a list of the exact instrumentation in any of the provided materials, or these remarks could be more specific.
Conductor Tyson Deaton delivered a superb performance. Once again, he demonstrated that he is one of the most precise and unflappable conductors in opera today, no matter how complicated a score he is handed. He has a way of transcending the details of the score and freeing music from the prison of the page, drawing the best efforts from all of the musicians in the pit and on stage.