REV. 23: A Gnostic Farce

photo by Kathy Wittman

In 2010, Cerise Lim Jacobs commissioned Chinese-American composer Zhou Long to set her libretto, White Snake to music. This collaboration won critical acclaim widely, winning Long the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his work on the opera, and setting the seed for Jacobs’s White Snake Projects: a foundation that commissions American composers to set Jacobs libretti. These collaborations began in 2016, with the premiere of the Ouroboros Trilogy in which Scott Wheeler’s Naga and Paola Prestini’s Gilgamesh book-ended Long’s prize-winning work. The premiere was extensively covered by the Intelligencer here and here; and was thoughtfully reviewed by Justin Casinghino for BMInt here.

REV. 23, a collaboration with composer Julian Wachner, allows Jacobs to imagine herself transcribing the dictation of St. John the Divine as he reveals a new final chapter to the book of Revelations (the concluding book of the Christian Bible). Revelations 22 tells of how the Archangel Michael suppresses a revolt against Heaven by Lucifer. Jacobs’s new chapter narrates how Lucifer wages another revolt against the Archangel Michael and returns the world to a state poised at the beginning of time. How fitting that this opera received its premiere in Boston’s John Hancock Hall on Friday, September 29th—the feast day of the Archangel Michael.

REV. 23 is no Paradise Lost, and perhaps it’s best not to think too deeply or critically about the libretto’s plot. In the opera’s cosmos, Hades and the Furies begrudgingly share the underworld with a lascivious Lucifer, frustrated with his fall from Heaven. It is unclear what caused it, but there has been an outage at the cosmic power plant that keeps everything in perpetual summer and light. Enter Persephone, who has been jolted into remembering a world with seasons. For unclear reasons, the three deities team up to bring knowledge to Earth and Paradise, and take military advice from the 6th Century BCE Taoist philosopher and author of the Art of War, Sun Tzu, before they wage their campaign (best not to spend too much time wondering how or why he comes into this world). This Gnostic universe filled with crudely drawn characters and improbable plot points also loads on kitschy fun that means to sweep its audience away with its dizzy slapstick.

But gentle probing into the libretto’s text reveals some uncomfortable darkness: are we meant to laugh when Sun Tzu blithely suggests Hitler’s Mein Kampf, stands on equal footing with Romeo and Juliet, or that Anna Karenina, is a good book for the inhabitants of Paradise to read? Later in the play, after losing a battle with the Archangel Michael, Lucifer laughs and proclaims himself “Death, destroyer of worlds”–a chilling reference Oppenheimer’s famous quotation from the Bhagavad Gita after seeing the destructive power of his atomic bomb. We are reminded again of the 20th century’s horrors when the inhabitants of Hades deride the Archangel Michael’s “re-education camps”, comparing them to the Khmer Rouge, among other genocidal authoritarian groups. What does Jacobs mean with these references to tragedies of modern history? It is jarring to hear them approached in this light comedy with such little gravitas. Certainly, few subjects should be so hallowed as to be off limits to mockery or parody. However, to interpret everything in REV. 23 as a lighthearted stunt is to ascribe no meaning to the work at all; to delve instead into the libretto’s politics requires careful attention all of the details. The audience left wondering how seriously to interpret Jacobs’ farcical drama.

Currently the Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York City, Julian Wachner is no stranger to Boston audiences. Wachner arrived as an undergraduate to study composition at Boston University, where he later completed his doctorate, all the while, rising to prominence as a conductor, educator, and most importantly, composer. During his tenure as organist and choir master at BU’s Marsh Chapel, Wachner composed liturgical pieces that are still widely performed throughout Boston; his recordings with multiple Boston ensembles still garner acclaim.

Wachner’s REV. 23 sounds as broad, interesting, and brightly colored as the characters and plot of Jacobs’ libretto. He describes a tactus, or inner pulse, as an organizing principle for his music. Rather than developing themes or a harmonic palette throughout the opera, it is this pulse that unifies the entire work and compels it forward. Thus, Wachner is able to maintain cohesion with this rhythmic discipline, while sampling and playing with all manner of color and genre. To be sure, much of the opera’s affable 12-tone language is also informed by the expectations and conventions of musical theater. Wachner’s excursions to different genres t keep REV. 23 exciting and fun: an early-Romantic ballet accompanies the dancers that appear in the second act; a Handelian movement accompanies the Archangel Michael’s first appearance on stage. Scattered among musical numbers that could have been lifted straight out of Sweeney Todd or Rent are arias and ensemble pieces that Alban Berg or Benjamin Britten would have been proud to have written. Amidst this entertaining gallimaufry, Wachner often reveals deep emotional intelligence: Persephone’s mournful second-act aria was a highlight of the evening; Eve’s “I don’t know what’s beyond Paradise” in the final act provided a sobering conclusion to the breathless absurdity that is REV. 23.

Friday evening’s performance buzzed with wit and energy. Zane Pihlstrom’s sets featured an industrial setting complete with scaffolding and chain-linked fences that flexibly adapted to the scene changes between Paradise and the Underworld. Sexy and fun costumes adorned male citizens of Hades in the denim and leather of punk rockers and sported bejeweled cod-pieces; Furies flitted about the stage in halter tops, colorful leggings, and hot pants. The inhabitants of Paradise made do with far less material (a fig leaf goes a long way in Pihlstrom’s hands), but their fall and subsequent shame brings them into the world of braziers and underpants. Director Mark Streshinsky’s vision for the opera, in collaboration with choreographer Yury Yanowsky and dramaturg Cori Ellison, teems with a distinctive sophisticated style.

The evening was marked by many fine performances. Lidiya Yankovskaya led a fully committed pit orchestra that met the challenges of Wachner’s wide-ranging vision with ease, although an over-exuberant ensemble sometimes overwhelmed the voices in the very dry but surprisingly serviceable John Hancock Hall. Baritone Michael Mayes (Lucifer), tenor Vale Rideout (Hades), and soprano Colleen Daly (Persephone), occupied center stage early on. Mayes’s resonant baritone portrayed a jovial, if put-upon Lucifer, frustrated with the underworld, but not immune to the carnal distractions of the Furies or, when he re-takes Paradise, of a scantily-clad Adam. Early on, Vale Rideout seemed tattered in the extremes of his range, but embodied a self-centered, jealous Hades with bold, well-shaped tone. As Persephone, Colleen Daly’s powerful soprano proved as comfortable with histrionic drama, as with rich, meditative arias. Later, countertenor Michael Maniaci (Archangel Michael) joined the fun with a clear, exquisitely controlled, but flexible sound that negotiated labyrinthine melismae with ease and clarity. Well-cast supporting roles made essential contributions to the success of Friday evening’s premiere: small-ensemble work by the three Furies (Nora Graham-Smith, Jamie-Rose Guarrine, and Melanie Long) balanced and executed impressively, especially in light of the acrobatics of their staging. Jonathan Blalock and Annie Rosen performed the wide-eyed Adam and Eve; bass-baritone David Cushing’s envisioned a bumbling, congenial Sun Tzu.

photo by Kathy Wittman

An eccentric vision of a world before the Beginning, REV. 23 received an eager standing ovation from an ecstatic audience. This run continues in John Hancock Hall on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. White Snake Projects has already committed to producing PermaDeath, a collaboration between Cerise Lim Jacobs, her son Pirate Epstein, and composer Dan Visconti, set to premiere in 2018; two other projects, Monkey, and Cosmic Cowboy are slated to premiere in 2019, and 2020, respectively.

A second take from reviewer Ian Wiese is here.

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

View Comments (2)

  • I'll be providing a second opinion in the coming days. I'm very curious to see how much it has changed since the NEC workshop version premiered back in February or March.

  • Only one performance left, people, Sunday afternoon. Hurry to see it; it's an experience, an Event; DO go see it--it's better than BLO. REV:23 suffers from the Screwball Comedy Problem: how do you end? Even the most famous screwball comedies, "Bringing Up Baby", "Airplane" etc. often "die" in the last five minutes; very few manage a sccessful sting like "Libeled Lady" or "Ruthless People". I am left with how Wachner could have managed the ending better. I do question the reviewer's powers of observation because the plot details were in the supertitles which explained much after it had been sung over and over (I note Wachner's annoying repeated reiteration of lines as a compositional technique mostly seemed to occur in Hell. More details in review to come--I paid full price to help out White Snake on Friday. OK, one bit: the ballet that opens the Paradise scene may be a deliberate parody of the French passion for ballet in opera that bedeviled Verdi, Wagner, and others. I was going to go up to Jacobs at intermission to ask her whether she had put this ballet bit in to gain performances in Paris. (By the way, the music for that ballet is sublime and I'd buy a CD of it!) However there was no intermission: the performance had started at 1933hrs and was over by 2115hrs.

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