Guerilla Opera’s “Beowulf” probes an ancient hero’s modern dilemma
Did Beowulf have post-traumatic stress syndrome? Did thunderstorms make the sword-swinging Old English warrior wake up in a sweat and feel again the hot breath of the monster Grendel on his neck?
These weren’t exactly the questions posed in the chamber opera Beowulf,which premiered Friday night in a production by Guerilla Opera in the Zack Box Theater of the Boston Conservatory. In fact, in this piece the clank of medieval armor had been replaced by the beep of a doctor’s pager and the rattle of an IV cart.
Composer and librettist Hannah Lash has created an opera about a contemporary hero, a doctor whose service in a war zone left him with deep psychic wounds, and who was now engaged in a familiar kind of everyday heroism, caring for an aging parent.
“My Beowulf,” wrote Lash in a program note, “is far from the hero who fought a monster in a banquet hall and triumphantly ripped out its arm.” That’s an understatement. This work-in-progress had apparently progressed so far beyond its original concept that its only associations with the Old English epic were the kind a critic might think up in an effort to make his review more interesting.
For example, Beowulf kills a mother in both the epic and the opera. Except in the opera, it’s not the monster’s mother, but his own, in an alarming final scene in which Dr. Beowulf, seized by the delusion that his mother is a child he killed in an act of mercy during the war, administers a fatal dose of morphine to the old lady.
Clearly this feeling of Grand Guignol was not the one Lash and stage director Andrew Eggert intended to leave the viewer with, since, according to the composer’s program note—thank heaven for program notes—the opera is “about love, about loss, and above all what it means to care for another person.”
But it was hard to avoid literal readings of events onstage when they were happening almost literally in one’s lap. In keeping with the medical theme, production designer Julia Noulin-Mérat placed the audience onstage in a steep horseshoe resembling a surgical amphitheater. Even with the steep angle, there was room in the tiny black-box space for only two rows of seats, and viewers in the first row had to mind their backpacks and their toes to avoid collision with a performer rushing by.
The situation seemed to invite interaction with the audience, especially in one scene of surgery in an operating room, but a decision had apparently been made to keep the fourth wall firmly up throughout the performance. Performer and viewer alike had to adjust to the idea that a person a foot away wasn’t there.
Of course, singing opera at that distance required some adjustment as well. Lash the librettist kept the dialogue mostly intimate and conversational, while Lash the composer held to a moderate vocal tessitura for the cast of three singers, except some high notes for the Mother in her dementia. One had the sense of powerful voices being heroically restrained.
Characterization, both in acting and in musical setting, was the strongest aspect of this production. Soprano Aliana de la Guardia never slipped into cliché or exaggeration as the mentally-fading Mother; her tentative shuffle around the stage and expressions ranging from vague worry to abject terror seemed to emanate from within, even at this pitilessly close range. From time to time, flashes of the young Mother who had cared for and disciplined Beowulf came through.
As the hero of the opera, Beowulf’s main heroic action was pulling his mother out of the nursing home and caring for her himself, an act as desperate as his homicidal ones, but rooted in gratitude and love. (He was also, blessedly, shown completing a successful operation and sending word to the patient’s mother that her little girl would be fine.)
Brian Church sang Beowulf in a forthright, somewhat rough baritone that suited a character caught in intractable situations, be it trying to give medical care in the middle of a war or the innumerable heartaches and frustrations of caring for fading loved ones.
In a sense, this Beowulf’s “monster” is the American system of elder care, staffed by people like the Nurse, the opera’s third character, who acts out his bitterness and anger by abusing the old people in his care, then wants a medal for his self-sacrifice.
As the Nurse, tenor Brendan P. Buckley was vocally firm in enacting the forced cheerfulness of the man bringing the IV, the defensiveness when his competence is questioned, and the begging for gratitude in spite of it all. Granting that this was a thoroughly unlikeable character, one still felt Buckley could have revealed a bit more about his inner life and what drove him.
Lash’s style of writing for the voices was mostly naturalistic dialogue in the pitch range of speech, which when combined with the mundane nature of what was being said, made it hard for loftier thoughts to enter the picture. In this opera, brushing one’s teeth literally became a leitmotiv.
Music to the rescue? Certainly Lash’s instrumentation for one violin, low reeds, and vibraphone-dominated percussion, ably shaped by percussionist and company co-artistic director Mike Williams, produced distinctive and evocative effects, some intended and some perhaps less so.
In the opera’s “hero doctor” moments, the deep-toned clarinet and saxophone moved in slow, Coplandesque wide intervals. On the other hand, one doubts that the vibraphone patter under several scenes was meant to recall “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as it did for at least one listener.
At its best, Lash’s often-intricate score mirrored psychological states without calling attention to itself, imperceptibly shifting toward or away from dissonance as the characters’ minds clouded or cleared. Similarly, sung dialogue became ensembles quite naturally in moments of stress, when the characters started excitedly talking over each other.
As both librettist and composer, Lash offered acute psychological observation and rewarding musical sensations. But at this stage in its development, Beowulf seemed not to be reaching the philosophical goals Lash and the production team had set for it. It remained, in a sense, a program note in search of an opera.
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