Guerilla Opera premiere delivers Bloland’s lit-crit work in blood-and-guts style
The biggest surprise about Per Bloland’s opera Pedr Solis, which had its world premiere Friday night in Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box performance space, was that it really was an opera.
Heralded with advance interviews, essays, etc. that made it sound more like an English Department lecture on literary modernism and its discontents than like musical drama, the production by Guerilla Opera proved to have as much sex, violence, special effects, blood and guts, and dead bodies at the end as anything by Richard Strauss.
And that’s appropriate, since Paul Schick’s libretto was inspired in part by the play Der Turm (The Tower) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’s longtime librettist. In this drama colored by the then-new insights of psychoanalysis, a king, fearful of a prophecy that he will be killed by his son, has the boy locked permanently in a tower.
According to a program note by composer Bloland, Hofmannsthal’s play has parallels to the Norwegian novel Stillaset by Pedr Solis, a “little-known experimental author of modernist literature” who published his book in the 1960s and was working on his second when he inexplicably vanished, possibly “to the very North of Norway.”
Aside from this opera, it may be of interest that Mr. Solis and his novel appear to have also escaped any mention on the Internet. Could it be that the opera’s modernist conflation of the real and the imagined extends beyond the stage, into the “outside” world of interpretation? Is the backstory the story? In an opera depicting the eponymous writer as simultaneously the author, protagonist, and victim of his own novel, mirrors proliferate.
Happily, the production’s stage director Laine Rettmer gave this heady stuff a robust physicality that drove the drama forward. Characters were slammed into the set’s bare plywood walls with such regularity that the thump of flesh against wood became almost an additional instrument in the score. Portraying both the human characters and hooded emanations of the Norse trickster god Loki, the four singers brawled, stripped, groped, writhed, and shed plenty of stage blood.
Equally forceful was Bloland’s scoring for booming electronics and live musicians Amy Advocat, clarinets; Kent O’Dougherty, saxophones; Gabriela Diaz, violin; and Mike Williams, percussion. Intense acoustical effects of instruments sliding in and out of unison mirrored the characters’ emotions, and the electronic rumble and hiss evoked the chaos outside the plywood walls as the unruly mob, aka Loki’s followers, rose in rebellion against authority.
Authority was of course represented by the author Pedr Solis, the architect of this labyrinthine world but ultimately as lost in it as everybody else. Wearing a tweed jacket scorched in the back by some previous encounter with chaos, fortifying himself with akvavit, Pedr obsessively built and then destroyed structures of wood blocks onstage, a metaphor both for the personal agony of writing a second novel and the literary agony of twentieth-century modernism and deconstructionism.
But there was nothing metaphorical about the burly baritone of Brian Church as Pedr, especially in his test-of-wills confrontations with his son Ignis, the personification of adolescent angst in an incandescent performance by tenor/countertenor Douglas Dodson.
Dodson’s voice wavered expressively between a teenager’s mutter and a child’s wail (intensified at one point by singing his piercing high notes into a drum held by a hooded Loki/stagehand) as the cringing, asserting, faltering Ignis proved the most reluctant prince since Hamlet. Like that other melancholy Scandinavian, Ignis (whose name, ironically, means “fire”) ultimately went clear-eyed to his fate as video projections of modern buildings being explosively demolished signaled the forces of chaos engulfing the opera’s final scene.
The opera’s two female characters drove the drama as strongly as the men, in vocally and physically powerful performances by mezzo-soprano Carrie Cheron as the sympathetic Doctor and especially soprano Aliana de la Guardia in the Machiavellian role of Adrian, chief minister to “king” Pedr and jailer/tutor to Ignis.
Alternately alluring and intimidating, de la Guardia was endlessly watchable as the scheming power behind the throne, and Cheron convincingly projected her character’s vulnerability and corruptibility. Both easily handled Bloland’s energetic style of atonal declamation, the lines naturally shaped to the text and delivered mostly without vibrato.
The four instrumentalists, positioned upstage right, ably wove an atmosphere of anxiety and menace with their strange vibrations and sudden punctuations.
The set design by Julia Noulin-Mérat managed to enclose in its claustrophobic high plywood walls not only the musicians but a good deal of 1970s-style Scandinavian-modern office furniture, a shrine to Pedr’s dead wife, and a jumble of wood building blocks, discarded liquor bottles, etc.—all on shag carpeting, of course.
Lighting designer Daniel B. Chapman enhanced the chaotic setting and ambiguous action with a wide vocabulary of light ranging from the merciless glare of fluorescent tubes to ominous flickers offstage to harsh orange side lighting that created hatchet-like faces and scary shadows.
Now that Guerilla Opera has successfully made operas out of Sartrean existentialism (in Andy Vores’s No Exit) and Derridan deconstructionism (in Pedr Solis), one awaits the verismo version of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
Pedr Solis will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, andSaturday May 23. guerillaopera.org; 617-912-9222.
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