in: Reviews

September 22, 2014

Modern Fairytale Opera Goes the Limit

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Few composers today are bold enough to write operas, fewer write singable melodies, and fewer still are successful enough to have their scores realized on a stage and with orchestra. Surely the solution to this problem would be to create something so different, and so layered with various genres, that it could work with a theatercentric audience, lovers of folk or Renaissance music such as attend “faires” (think King Richard’s Faire with bards and minstrels), and followers of wandering storytellers in same, while still appealing to those who love classical opera.

Such was the performance presented the past two weekends by a group of musicians and singers at the Round Top Center of Beneficent Church in Providence. In his Legend of the Fairy Mélusine, composer Steve Jobe has created a singspiel of sorts, much spoken along with sung narrative, although not a comedy per se. He called the libretto not so much a play but a lyric narrative. Not only has he composed the music and created new instruments (more about this later), but he is also author of the libretto, based on Roman de Mélusine by Jean d’Arras, from the late 14th century, itself based on European fairytales. The Mélusine character who walks among us as a human is half-fairy as well as a goddess who permutes weekly into half-woman, half-serpent, because of a curse invoked on her by her mother. She must find and marry a man who knows nothing of this condition and will agree not to see her on Saturdays (two sisters attend her in her bath during her transformation), and only by his true love, and adherence to this rule, can the curse be suspended and she then remain in her human form.

It is a story told and retold, and variously addressed from alchemists of the Middle Ages to modern alchemists, as Jobe calls them, such as Jung, extending to our day with the film Shrek. It entails learning to overlook appearance, or, as Jobe says, “seeing that there is more than what meets the eye … and how our continued survival as citizens of this planet may depend on inspired vision, deep listening and choices filled with love and compassion.”

The performance result was laudable, but a bit much to take in. Perhaps the work has too many ideas for focus, or perhaps the problem was that most of the singers had to remain on-book. It was publicized as a concert version, but much attention was given to details and making it a semistaged event, including a screen with painted leaves which changed color with lighting to represent a forest, also pieces of furniture, a screen and a couch. Props were peppered in, including a most worrisome spinning wheel which appeared when the Storytelling Woman appeared. Some of the narrative grew long and static. Better program notes, a synopsis and background to each act, or better yet a concise musical and dramatic development of even the smaller characters’ inner monologues or raison d’être would have helped. To add to that suspended action, the music under that narrative was written (I assume intentionally) with serial-like figures, repeated, and although the texture of harp, vibraphone and tuned glass bells (an instrument Jobe created for the show, which looked like glass covers suspended from ropes of various sizes) was engaging, I experienced it as an effort either to suspend the magic or to effect a kind of magical realism while the characters spoke or sang their narratives to fill us in. Unfortunately it became rather predictable at the scene breaks. In any case, much of the effect entailed listening to not so clear diction, following a subtitle screen that was at times erratic, which added to the frustration of trying to follow the complicated story.

The libretto had beautiful language but was interspersed with somewhat clumsy lines, such that I was not sure if they were supposed to be funny. For example, Storytelling Woman’s opening line is “With our thoughts we might weave our own shroud, but with our deepest yearnings, we might weave a tapestry.” This beautiful opening spurs us right away to thinking about that allegory, but then not long after comes information that leads us to wonder if we are on the right path: talk of circles, heart chambers, circles as opposed to spirals, and so on. So much symbolism is employed that it is as if yellow highlighting has covered a book’s text. We don’t know what to pay attention to.

The effort was sponsored by FirstWorks, an organization dedicated to putting all manner of high-level artists before the public, as part of their Decade bash. It also was sponsored through a Kickstarter campaign, meaning it took a village to bring this fairytale to life. The many ‘journeymen’ who traveled alongside Jobe in bringing this into existence were no small part of the impressive success. Jobe assembled singers and musicians with whom he has been working over the years, and they have come to know his unusual vision of sound and storytelling, his relying on their ideas and encouragement as well as bouncing ideas off them. Such was the dedication of violinist Laura Gulley, who served as music director in keeping the 12 musicians together in this conductorless performance. At no time, did any of the accompanying forces, nor the characters onstage, seem lost or apart from one other. It was quite a triumph for artists of different levels and backgrounds to work together and create the two-hour journey as imagined by Jobe. A longtime friend and mentor, Gulley worked on getting the orchestral parts to the music in such playable order that any musician could follow them and the work played “after we are gone.”

The orchestra was made up of an amazing array of instruments modern and medieval, from violin, cello, string bass, and a Boschean hurdy-gurdy created based on an image from The Garden of Earthly Delights. Ten feet long and with a full range of sounds in the bass and contrabass, it takes at least two to play, one to crank and one to deploy the stops or notes. It can also be played by three, the third cranking next to the first, letting out quite the wailing and whacking sound heard during the boar hunt. The musicians even made this machine a character, since it had been played a couple of times before the hunt, but as the animal’s death approached its final moment before winding it up, a wooden boar’s head was placed atop it! There were also a gentler-sounding drone, drums, the glass bells mentioned earlier, various recorders, harp, portative organ, vibraphone, trumpet, piccolo trumpet and corno da caccia, harmonica, and bagpipes. Many excellent musicians and soloists in their own right, from disparate backgrounds and experiences, made up the ‘Band’—from the Rhode Island Philharmonic to London-born harmonica superstar Chris Turner, known locally and also worldwide. Turner said he was happy to be included and even with little to do was an integral part of the texture and family of artists who brought this project to fruition.

Jobe’s musicmaking palette employs unusual combinations, although the glass bells, since they were made for this production, could have played a more prominent part. Elements in his writing style gravitate toward his first incarnation as an early-music enthusiast: French Renaissance rondeau dance forms. Add folk melodies, occasionally too simplistic as in the final ensemble, but when each character enters, the writing becomes more complex. “Here as before you I stand” sounded quite a triumph, one I was surprised to enjoy.

As Storytelling Woman, alto Daniela Tosic did a fine job, and Jobe’s score enabled her to use her ample low register. She became most effective in act V, when she was off-book. The Hunters, tenor Joel McCoy and baritone Frederick Jodry, who accompany the lead character Raimondin, provided comic relief in this sometimes depressing story. Most appreciated was Jodry’s clarion diction and comedic impishness. Mélusine’s two sisters, soprano Sharon Key and alto Mariami Bekauri, sang handsomely. Tenor Fredric Scheff survived, and even reveled in, the punishingly high tenor part of Raimondin, and in his only adlib note when he finally kills the boar, he let loose an impressive high E! His speaking voice was warm and dulcet in his scenes with Mélusine. That part was played by Kara Lund, definitely the most impressive of the cast. A beautiful woman onstage, she had most of the finished score in her possession only two months beforehand, and took the effort to memorize 95% of it, to great effect. Lund possesses a beautiful cantabile sound, even though it is a voice that never really opens up and blooms as the extreme upper notes become a bit brittle and shrill—strange considering the warmth in the other registers. Her enunciation has a brightness that brings extreme likability to her character. It was Lund who spurred things forward after a slow beginning, when she came downstage to deliver the Architectural Aria, wherein she uses her magic to build the castle she and Raimondin will make for their home. This was some of the finest writing in the score, and I could easily see how the aria could be excerpted into a standalone piece that any soprano would love.

One senses Steve Jobe is still trying to find his voice as a composer. Some of the writing is really quite complex and intelligent with wonderful color, but overall it remains a work in progress. As the libretto puts it at the end, “Now the end is the beginning, the rainbow is a circle, and the circle becomes a spiral.” Jobe is still evolving his important and passionate voice. As he has a village behind him, I suspect we have not heard the last of him and his magic.

 Mezzo Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate, is currently an organist and music director in Rhode Island, where she lives with her tenor husband Noel Velasco.

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