IN: Reviews

Complex Portraiture, Fragmented Yet With Teeth


From Classical Greece to Ukraine to Broadway, Roomful of Teeth mixed another powerful motley of mood, affect, experience, and premieres at Kresge on Friday.

After rebuffing Apollo, Aeschylus’s Cassandra is cursed with the gift of prophecy no mortal will believe. When she first appears in the Agamemnon, time is suspended: Cassandra, goaded by the chorus, details the fall of Troy, her home, then her journey to Greece as Agamemnon’s booty, and, ultimately, the proleptic mourning of gory end (known to no one but her) at the hands of Clytemnestra—events we know to be fated are but the bewildering ramblings of a harried PoW.

True to curse, she is ignored, only to see her visions come true.

That is the prototype for what takes place more than two millennia later in I Puritani and Lucia di Lammermoor—the first mad scene existing in drama.

Madness was well-reimagined in Elena Ruehr’s Cassandra in the Temples, premiered by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in Kresge Hall on Friday evening. The opera is a fruitful collaboration with Gretchen Henderson, whose 13-part libretto takes place in the head of Cassandra as she remembers her curse and prophesies her demise. The text is as much poetry as artwork: the libretto at times taking the form of prose, at others defiantly stylized. One poem is a serpentine extension of the word no; another elegantly drapes itself around two intersecting columnar lines. Still further is the poetry shrouded in an oracular aura of ambiguity, shattering dialogue and interchanging speakers. Voices rarely arise individually to provide meaning, and Ruehr’s text settings were equally fragmented, altogether not unlike the worm-eaten papyri that are our sources. Ruehr’s setting for a cappella ensemble meets the substantial challenges of the libretto with a highly stylized minimalist language that imbues each scene with distinct character, as if in imitation of the theater masks employed in ancient Greek theater. Although there are moments where individuals are heard above dense vocal texture, creation of character and narration alike is largely motivated by combinations of voices and vocal effects.

The character ambiguity and lack of narrative clarity make it difficult to envision Cassandra as an opera in the traditional sense (notably, Friday’s performance was unstaged). Regardless, the dramatic structure of the work, from the approach to Cassandra’s temple to a procession away from the tomb that lies beneath, illustrated by splintered text and fractured sound of tragic madness, makes for a strikingly effective experience.

How fitting that Cassandra in the Temples be paired with the world premiere of Christine Southworth and Evan Ziporyn’s Borderland. Thematically the pieces are polar opposites: Cassandra is deeply internalized, delving into individual psychic trauma; Borderland, dedicated to the people of Ukraine, takes for its subject political oppression and the demand for social justice. The work starts with settings of tweets and Facebook posts from the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down in July. The music convulses in a code of syllables that fizzle and propagate like digital media itself. Subsequent movements move from online media to more traditional poetry, to imitations of birdsongs and nature—a progression from the immediate outcry against current oppression and conflict to a wider and deeper paean for the fundamental state of human life in disputed land. While each movement uses one or more of the languages that populate Ukraine, each tongue is deliberately unrecognizable, words broken down into syllables, until the only unifying theme is the shared basal human sound. This fragmentation of language, and through it the effacement of emotion, seems a dire attempt to distance Borderland’s audience from truth hidden in the piece. Yet the extremes to which the work goes to enact the secret reveal all the more the deep trauma that betrays the authors, the composers, and their music—a strikingly effective approach to memorializing contemporary events, and indeed to memorializing the heritage and history of its suffering peoples.

Friday evening’s concert premiering these works featured the eight members of Roomful of Teeth under the leadership of music director and founder Brad Wells. Now in its fifth year, the ensemble has had remarkable success, particularly with its first album in 2012, which received a Grammy for Best Chamber Music / Small Ensemble Performance. Ensemble member Caroline Shaw won the Pulitzer for Partita for 8 Voices, written for and premiered by the ensemble.

Roomfull of Teeth (file photo)
Roomfull of Teeth (file photo)

The ensemble sound was well-blended and sturdy—a feat in itself given both works’ demanding scores. In addition, I was struck by the panoply of vocal effects at the ensemble’s disposal. The opening of Cassandra introduced a haunting diphonic drone above solid open fifths. This drone appeared again in Borderland and other pieces—a signature technique. But less dramatic vocal effects peppered the performance. Borderland incorporates birdsong, distant whistles and warbles from the sopranos, while Cassandra demanded glissandi in the sopranos (admittedly garnering not insignificant laughter from the audience) to mark the savagery of the remonstrance Cassandra pays Apollo’s advances in the fourth scene of Ruehr’s opera. Individual members contributed significantly to more-solo movements. Eric Dudley and Thomas McCargar gave notable performances in Cassandra: Dudley’s resonant tenor reveling in the hushed susurrations of the serpents of Apollo’s temple in the third movement, McCargar’s substantial baritone finding its home among the mahogany color of the lower voices in the eighth movement. None of this is to ignore the work of Estelí Gomez throughout the work, whose crystalline soprano resonates satisfyingly in the muffled acoustics of Kresge. Although lesser in scope, Borderland also included significant small(er) ensemble work, particularly in the third movement, duets intertwining between tenor and baritone soloists, only to dissipate into imitation by soprano and alto duet, supported by a haunting mantra.

The evening concluded with three works, Allemande from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, Judd Greenstein’s Run Away and Brad Wells’s Otherwise—works representing more standard fare for the ensemble. After the impact of the two world premieres from MIT composers, dramatic and emotional, I found the transition difficult, although I can’t deny the significant artistry involved in the closing performances. The pieces were rendered in a more colloquial register, a more versatile palette of colors. Allemande switches sharply from spoken lines to broad rock harmonies that pulse and jitter throughout the six-minute duration, interrupted briefly by an echoing soprano vocalise. Run Away, alto Virginia Warnken the soloist, might have been stolen directly from Broadway if its complex harmonies didn’t betray a more sophisticated undertaking. Otherwise, composed in 2012 for the ensemble by Wells, featured Dashon Burton’s profound operatic bass resounding in deeply satisfying ripples throughout Kresge. An experience of powerful contrasts and explorations, Friday evening’s program was greeted with a most appreciative ovation.

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.

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