On August 31st, the Firebird Ensemble presented the Boston premiere of Donald Crockett’s new chamber opera The Face in concert performance at the Boston Conservatory Theater. David St. John, the librettist, derived the opera’s 11 scenes from his own “novella in verse” of the same title, which he overtly characterized as “a classical Faustian story.” In an evening’s entertainment that seemed to want to merge the glitz of Los Angeles with the fastidiousness of Boston, the opera’s weakness of libretto was nearly overcome by the quality of its performance.
Certainly, the characters of The Face are Faustian. Raphael, St. John’s Faust, is a poet and writer who has recently suffered a series of calamities. They include the death of his beloved Marina, a character who is portrayed in the opera solely by artfully filmed home movies projected at the back of the stage. In his resulting depression Raphael enters into a contract with the devil. That is, he will agree to be the subject of a film made by the well-known and diabolical movie producer Memphis, the opera’s version of Mephistopheles. Infanta is a female director who is working with Memphis to convince Raphael to make the film. Finally, Cybele is a young and ambitious actress whose resemblance to Marina gets her the part in Memphis’s film, but also initiates a great deal of pathos in Raphael.
The opera pays an appropriately large measure of dramatic attention to Raphael’s suffering; his is a borderline narcissism that is associated with his self-pity. This emotionalism was expressed with an infectious cynicism by the barefooted tenor Daniel Norman. To Crockett’s credit, Norman’s part was quite restrained throughout the first nine scenes of the work, making it all the more powerful when, in the 10th scene, Crockett let him loose. In this big number Norman’s voice emerged with a full and ferocious tone that electrified the room.
Perhaps the source of the opera’s problems is its brevity. Clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, the plot leaves much storytelling basically incomplete. Raphael’s character is the only one in the opera which is given any real sense of depth or developmental arch. Memphis, wittily portrayed by Baritone Thomas Meglioranza, provides some dark comic relief, particularly in the seventh scene’s “Edge World,” the opera’s equivalent to the Walpurgisnacht. Meglioranza’s voice was in good form — clear, authoritative, and perfectly merged with his character. Similarly, Infanta’s character lacked any dramatic arch. Fortunately, the static nature of her character, always sexy and ambitious, was portrayed perfectly by mezzo Janna Baty whose lush, lustrous, and lusty voice enriched the ensemble scenes with refined and syncretic blending. However, at the end of the opera one wondered that her character never experienced or expressed any regret for her actions.
Ultimately, the libretto’s biggest weakness in characterization resides in the characters of Marina and Cybele, the two characters played by Jane Sheldon that represent the opera’s version of Faust’s Gretchen. Crockett has described Marina as “the ideal woman,” and that “…her loss is the reason Raphael is struggling.” At first, this idealization would seem to align with the famous “eternal feminine” that closes Goethe’s version. However, St. John’s version neglects the tremendous amount of suffering that Goethe’s Gretchen underwent during the play. The contrast between the two is stark. Goethe’s Faust is redeemed by Gretchen’s love and forgiveness, a love and forgiveness made miraculous by her enormous suffering throughout the play. St. John’s Raphael is redeemed simply by Marina’s physical beauty as reflected in a series of nostalgic home movies. Ultimately, there is plenty of time and space remaining in the work for character development, and it was terribly disappointing that the beauty and precision of Sheldon’s vocal performance was given to a role that lacked a soliloquy of any significance.
The Firebird Ensemble, one of Boston’s greatest jewels, articulated Crockett’s score with precision. His refined timbres, especially in blending the classical guitar with the louder instruments in the 11-piece ensemble, were handled admirably well by conductor Gil Rose, the long-standing champion of contemporary music in Boston. Brian Head’s performance on guitar, both bottleneck and classical, brought a warmth and richness to the score while Rafael Popper-Keizer seemed to cross the line between instrument and voice when he made his cello sing. Sarah Brady also deserves special mention for her pure, yet colorful tone; it was a ringing bell heard throughout the performance.