“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary...” Edgar Allan Poe’s well-known opening words, when uttered by mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg, sounded even eerier than usual, especially following the instrumental opening of Toshio Hosokawa’s monodrama. During this introduction to Mr Hosokawa’s The Raven, the performers of the Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra set an ominous tone with textures and fragments reminiscent of a midnight wind or distant sirens. Conducted by Neal Goren, the musicians breathed across and blew notelessly into their instruments, creating layers of sounds that grew ever more intriguing as the repetition of the word “nevermore” grew ever more sinister.
Even before the orchestral opening to the monodrama, the mood had been set. The first quarter of the program consisted of Conte fantastique: Le Masque de la Mort rouge, a piece for string quartet and harp based on another of Poe’s most famous works, The Masque of the Red Death. Rather than focusing on the madness and isolation of one person, as in The Raven, this story tells of illness and death pervading a crowded masquerade ball. The aptly haunting musical setting of this tale was composed by André Caplet, who was born in the late 19th century on a boat from Le Havre to Honfleur and is mostly known for his orchestrations of Debussy works.
Caplet’s music was accompanied by images projected onto the wall behind the ensemble: a moon that turned into a hooded eye; a couple of disembodied faces. The significance of these cliché images was not altogether clear, but fortunately they did not distract from the music. Caplet’s score is permeated with rising and falling tension, recurring fifths, and urgent, hushed staccatos and glissandos, culminating in a series of knocks on the side of the harp, and then ending in a flourish. There was no applause, however, as the four bows lingered in the air after the final chord. Instead, a solitary sound emanated from the darkness as individual musicians carried and handed off a single note, tuning in the shadows, chiming in one by one until they were joined by Mr Goren. Then the stage was consumed by silence in addition to the darkness.
What followed was nothing less than riveting, as text, visuals, and sounds kaleidoscoped into a multi-dimensional frenzy. This production of The Raven was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti in the vein of Japanese Noh theater, with lighting, sets, and projection by Clifton Taylor and Adam Larsen. The added elements, which during the Caplet piece had seemed unnecessary, were here well-suited to the unearthly spectrum of sounds. Mr Hosokawa’s rich and complex music was rendered breathtakingly by the instrumentalists and Mr Goren. The accompaniment was generally quiet, the loudest moments being the occasional brass sforzandos and percussive bowing from the strings. In the program, Mr Goren states that Mr Hosokawa could be “a spiritual heir of Debussy”. Indeed, the impressionistic greys and violets dripping from the twelve instruments provided a sonic link to the Caplet, in addition to their shared literary theme.
On the other side of the stage, Ms Brillembourg and dancer Alessandra Ferri paced, crawled, scootched, and writhed, clad in identical dark and unostentatious costumes designed by Peter Speliopoulos. As Ms Brillembourg spoke and sang the stanzas of Poe’s gruesome poem, Ms Ferri twisted about and under her, pulled her ponytail, and eventually crouched in the back corner of the stage, where a shadow projection sprang from her form and twirled across the back wall. The most impressive moments were those when Ms Ferri intertwined her legs with those of Ms Brillembourg, elevating herself off the ground and balancing in various positions; Ms Brillembourg continued singing all the while, never mind the fact that she was supporting another human body while doing so. As the poem bore on and the weight of the nevermores and the music grew heavier, the two forms collided time and again in their personification of insanity. During the last stanza, the halves representing outer and inner separated and returned to opposite sides of the stage. The final whispered “nevermore” was followed by a recurrence of the beginning: the impossibly quiet rasps of the instruments ebbing closer and closer to silence before dissolving into thin air.