Last night in the Sound Bites Series at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Guerilla Opera gave the world première of Pedr Solis, a chamber opera with libretto by Paul Schick and music by Per Bloland in advance of performances this and next weekend at Boston Conservatory. The MFA space did little to support the challenging work.
Guerilla Opera has made a name for itself presenting cutting-edge and black box chamber opera and encouraging living composers. The instrumentalists and singers are all top drawer. This production seems to move its mission beyond, liberating the opera from the opera house. I am reminded of cellist Matt Haimovitz playing solo Bach in bars: this premiere fundamentally questions expectations of performance, and implicitly interrogates conventions of the genre. In some ways this felt like a scheduled flashmob happening. I think a costumed and staged rendition (even if done on the cheap) would better suit the company’s guerrilla spirit, and perhaps that is what readers will experience subsequently at BoCo. Also, this performance space—a wide spot at the bottom of a stairwell, at a juncture between old and new parts of the building, near the large gift shop, café, and auditorium—was boundless. Not only was the fourth wall broken, so were several others. Interesting idea to re-think venues, but it put opera in competition with an often hostile crowd (like the one young guy screeching mockingly from down the corridor). Talk about a tough audience.
The story of Pedr Solis is an amalgam. Partly it derives from Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “The Tower” and partly it is based on a Norwegian novel, Stillaset, by Pedr Solis. The company’s website describes the setting as 1970 and the novel “mystically blends into [the author’s] real life in Oslo.” Hofmannsthal is known for his operatic collaborations with Richard Strauss; the closest comparison for Pedr Solis with more familiar Hofmannsthal operas would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, minus the singing fish. The absence of libretto and supertitles, coupled with the open acoustic of this performance space, made of this fantastical story an exploration of the limits of rationality and the frontiers of meaning. At about the 50-minute mark (the work runs about 75), the narrative briefly resolves into an Oedipal tale of therapeutic desire and detection. In the end, though, I was deprived of any true sense of an ending. The disparate stories, for me, did not mesh; this was a foray into cognitive as well as musical dissonance. One line jumped out at me: “I know what you want. But I won’t.” Perhaps I would have found deeper resonances across the opera had I the text or could have better discerned the words sung.
Pedr Solis is scored for clarinets, saxophones, violin, percussion, and electronics, as well as voices. Amy Advocat (clarinetist) and Kent O’Doherty (saxophonist) juggled several instruments each in their respective families, as did percussionist Mike Williams. Gabriela Diaz (violin) only had the one instrument—as, arguably, did Alfonso Peduto on electronics (with sound board and laptop). The music calls for extended technique from all, which the musicians mastered with ease. There are four vocal parts: Brian Church (baritone) as Pedr Solis; Aliana de la Guardia (soprano) as Adrian; Carrie Cheron (soprano) as Doctor; and Doug Dodson (countertenor) as Ignis. All four vocalists also sang the parts of Loki. Confused? So was I. The plot jumps from tale to tale without discernible warning, and I never could tell when the characters were singing Loki. I presume Bloland is playing off that Norse god’s reputation as a trickster. But the music was well-coordinated with tight ensemble playing (a miracle given the difficult score and the ambient noise levels), and well-sung. I commend them all on a fine premiere. All of the singers have lovely and powerful voices, even in the spoken narration, and were a delight to hear; countertenor Dodson was especially impressive. Every participant brought variety (of tonal color, phrasing, timbre) and presence.
This was my first exposure to Bloland’s œuvre. His website gives his impressive credentials and mentions his work in both acoustic and electroacoustic music. This opera has elements of both. The work consisted of discordant gestures glued together by electroacoustics, oscillating between static and feedback, exploring the intersection of music and noise; sounds characterizable as the latter were organized into the former. Of the music generated at IRCAM, where Boulez is titular and Bloland has recently held a residency, I am most familiar with Boulez and Kaija Saariaho. My preference is for electronic music that uses the generated sounds in a new way, as Saariaho does in her electroacoustic works. Bloland seemed more interested in incorporating the electronic noise of our daily lives into an opera. This was a distraction rather than the opening of a new soundscape. Were these snippets meant to mark shifts between the overlapping layers of the plot, like the tempo and key modulations in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream? If so, that realization was lost on me; the net result was a mild bafflement at what one might glean from this added texture.
I went to hear an opera and a film festival broke out. The venue, the Howard Cox Staircase in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, suffered from being a connector between various additions to the building, as well as being adjacent to the café and the Remis Auditorium where the National Center for Jewish Film’s 18th -annual festival is underway. Jasmine Hagans (Curator of Lectures, Courses, and Concerts) welcomed us and was present throughout the performance; pity she could not be bothered to suggest those queuing for the film not try to talk over the performance. This obliviousness, combined with the general difficulty of performing in this space, strikes me as fundamentally rude to players and audience. Misspelling the composer as “Per Boland” and the librettist as “Paul Shick” (in rather large type) in the program did not improve matters. As a member of the MFA I am absolutely mortified that I am in any way supporting or participating in this bad behavior.
As for the audience, they came and went; perhaps they spoke of Caravaggio. I don’t know, for all the snippets I overheard. Sometimes the performers outnumbered the listeners. Interested readers will be able to hear this work in more ideal circumstances at Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box May 15th – 17th & 21st – 23rd. Perhaps in these performances, with stage direction credited to Laine Rettmer, the singers will be off-score and have some interesting stage business.