Odyssey Opera presents a late Corigliano masterpiece with “The Lord of Cries”

November 20, 2022 at 1:26 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Dionysus in John Corigliano’s The Lord of Cries with Gil Rose conducting Odyssey Opera Saturday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

On occasion, it happens that a composer is presented with subject matter that, for whatever reason, causes their creative powers to function at the highest level. Such was the situation with Mozart in Le nozze di Figaro, Berlioz in La damnation de Faust, Wagner in Die Walküre, and Britten in Peter Grimes.

It also seems to be the case with John Corigliano and his new opera, The Lord of Cries. Finished in 2021, the spectacular score received its East Coast premiere Saturday night at Jordan Hall, courtesy of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera.

Setting a libretto by Corigliano’s partner (and fellow composer) Mark Adamo, The Lord of Cries grafts characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula onto the plot of Euripides’ The Bacchae. In the process, it streamlines and dramatically alters the former: there’s no Mina; Lucy is married to Jonathan Harker, not engaged to Arthur Holmwood; Abraham Van Helsing is John Seward’s advisor, not his former teacher; and so on. Though the intermission chatter on Saturday suggested that this revised narrative was confusing, Adamo’s adaptation, taken on its own merits, makes perfect sense.

Dionysus, millennia after destroying Thebes for not recognizing his divinity, laments that humankind continues to repress its natural cravings. Lessons need to be retaught. Accordingly, he terrorizes London and demands Carfax Abbey from Seward, who refuses him three times.

Lucy (Westenra) Harker, her husband’s mind permanently broken by his harrowing visit to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, is torn between her feelings for Seward (which are returned) and her duty as Harker’s wife. She, also, rejects Dionysus’ fateful three temptations, but he has his revenge: Seward, inadvertently giving in to the gods’ alluring minions (the “odd sisters”), slaughters a wolf who he thinks to be Dionysus—only the animal turns out to be the transformed Lucy. Seeing her severed head in his hands, Seward ends his days a broken, institutionalized shell of a man. The moral? Subjugated desire leads to unpleasant ends.

Grim though this may be, the story is elevated by Adamo’s contributions. His libretto is a masterpiece of precision and psychological understanding: not a single word is wasted; and every one he uses is the right one for the character in that moment.

Corigliano’s score reflects this, even if it doesn’t break any new ground. Rather, it stands as something of a fresh summation of the 84-year-old composer’s career: a sharp ear for sonority, embrace of aleatoric gestures and extended techniques, elevation of gesture and texture to the level of melody and harmony, and discreet employment of tonality are all part of The Lord of Cries.

Other elements are added to the brew. The speaking role of the Correspondent gives the opera a radio theater vibe (and The War of the Worlds isn’t too far-fetched a reference after Dionysus destroys much of London in an earthquake at the end of Act 1). A trio of “odd sisters” lend an otherworldly, coloratura aspect to the proceedings at key structural points. Corigliano’s use of the chorus is both operatically traditional (participating in the action) and allusive of the ancient Greek custom (offering commentary on it).

The piece is, ultimately, the work of a composer whose mastery of theatrical elements has never been in question but whose application of them in other contexts sometimes run up against formal or thematic constraints. No such issues emerge here: in The Lord of Cries, technique and expression run hand-in-hand.

To be sure, this is as fluent a score as Corigliano has ever written, unfolding with a sweeping command of musical space, color, and time. Perhaps it takes a bit too much of the latter—Act 1, with its Prologue and four scenes, clocks in at a long and very long-feeling 85 minutes. But even then, the ear is never at a loss for engaging and, often, captivating vocal and instrumental sounds (like the opening chorus accompanied by thundering percussion).

Saturday’s performance benefited from a superb cast, several of whom had sung The Lord of Cries’ premiere in Santa Fe last summer.

As Dionysus, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo blended the ethereal and the seductive with astonishing ease. His tone carried brilliantly: when singing without vibrato, Costanzo’s instrument had the quality of a searchlight piercing through a black sky. But it was his utterly natural shifts between enticingly lyrical and furiously menacing that made his performance so perfectly harrowing.

Soprano Kathryn Henry sang Lucy with gleaming tone and no shortage of star wattage. Yet her voice was always warm, diction clear. Her chemistry with Jarrett Ott’s Stewart was, throughout the night, compelling.

Ott, a baritone of robust strength and resonant tone, lived the part of Stewart. The character’s breakdown at the end of Act 2—with its echoes of Donizetti and Leonard Bernstein—was particularly haunting.

So was David Portillo’s portrayal of Jonathan Harker. His singing was always clear and true but his ability to straddle, with incredible assurance, Harker’s shifts between lucidity and raving madness was breathtaking.

Similarly impressive in smaller roles were Matt Boehler’s noble, onyx-toned Van Helsing and Matthew DiBattista’s high-strung Captain. Will Ferguson’s Correspondent intoned his lines with winning vigor.

As the “odd sisters,” sopranos Leah Brzyski and Rachel Blaustein, and mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes sang with hypnotic tonal blend and stratospheric range. Their collective sense of character—by turns playful, cunning, and alluring—was spot-on.

Leading it all was BMOP music director Gil Rose. Opera in Jordan Hall is notoriously tricky from a balance standpoint, though Rose and Company have more experience with the genre in that venue than most. That told in Saturday’s concert performance.

From the main floor, at least, the voices carried. The orchestral contributions, which ranged from semi-improvisatory to roundly tonal, were as refined and secure as this ensemble has ever delivered. The smallish chorus, prepared by Mariah Wilson, made up in volume for what it lacked in numbers.

The result was the second operatic presentation in as many days to decisively raise the local performance standard for the art form. Corigliano and Adamo were both on hand afterwards to take bows. They, the cast, and the orchestra deserved every cheer they received.

BMOP and Odyssey Opera present Tobias Picker’s Awakenings February 25 at The Huntington Theater. odysseyopera.org 

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Odyssey Opera presents a late Corigliano masterpiece with “The Lord of Cries””

  1. Posted Nov 20, 2022 at 7:29 pm by Kathy Boyce

    I was there too! Thanks for a comprehensive review. I loved this and eagerly await the recording that is being made as we speak.

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