Revelation 22 happened, it says in the Bible. Paradise and Earth merged, one in the same, and the souls of the saved enjoy endless day, free from hatred, wantonness, and despair. The Archangel Michael cast Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, down into the black pit of Hell a second time, ending humanity’s strife and preserving us in God’s grace until the end of time.
But it ain’t necessarily so. What if Lucifer tried once again, this time introducing lost feelings to mankind such as sadness and anger to balance endless joy through literature? What if that caused mankind to turn on God to preserve the new knowledge? Composer Julian Wachner and librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, under White Snake Projects hot on the heels of the highly successful Ouroboros Trilogy, ask and answer that very same question in REV. 23, which recently closed its performance run at John Hancock Hall from September 29th-October 1st. Except instead of only being rooted in Abrahamic Christian characters, throw in Greek gods, demigods, and The Art of War writer Sun Tsu/Tse. Also, instead of being a serious drama, it’s a farce, satirizing historical and modern political authoritarianism and intellectualism. Mixed in together, REV. 23 paves out a road for itself: a punk rock influenced romp through the second tragic fall of man while laughing sadistically all the way home.
Picking up immediately after Paradise and Earth have merged, Lucifer and Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld, attempt to sabotage the power generator providing endless day in Paradise (known in the story as “Up There”). Failing, they both escape back to Hell (“Down Here”), where they wallow in frustration at losing their last chance to destroy it and bring darkness back to earth. Lucifer wants to spite God once again for casting him back down into Down Here while Hades wants to bring Winter back to earth in order to see Persephone once again. Shortly thereafter, Persephone returns to Down Here, wanting to be with Hades again, as she loves him now, and also desiring that the world be brought back into Winter so that when she returns she can make the flowers bloom once again in Spring. Realizing all their goals line up, Hades summons the master tactician, Sun Tse, stuck Down Here for writing the most referenced book on warfare. Sun Tse comes up with a plan of poisoning the minds of all the humans Up There with knowledge: “art, literature, drama, opera, heavy metal, pop!” Passing out books, music, and strangely enough iPads and iPhones, the quartet (along with the Three Furies, who mostly do Hades’s bidding, zip around, and play the part of the Greek chorus commenting on everything, despite not being actively involved in the plot) begins to feed new emotions to the residents of Up There. Two in particular, Adam and Eve (from the Book of Genesis, the original sinners), especially take to the new material, loving the new emotions they experience. Persephone takes them to the generator while Hades and Lucifer continue with the residents of Up There, only to be interrupted by Archangel Michael who stops Lucifer by forcing him into the light. Weakened, Lucifer flees while Michael stops Persephone, kidnapping Adam and Eve in the process, soon setting up re-education camps for Up There. Lucifer, Hades, and Persephone seek Sun Tse again, looking for a way to free Adam and Eve. On a suggestion of infiltration, all the main denizens of Down Here disguise themselves to fit in with the re-education camp, which has begun a book burning of all the material that had been distributed, fueling the power generator. When Eve asks to preserve her favorite book, Romeo and Juliet, Michael commands her to toss it into the furnace, prompting Eve to question the value of eternal life without her pleasure. In a fit of desperation, Eve grabs the Book of Life, which contains all the names of those allowed to stay in Paradise, and throws it into the furnace instead, destroying Paradise, Down Here, and the rest of the universe as the story of the Bible begins once again, creating an endless cycle of destruction and rebuilding.
The story itself is a solid, if not blasphemous, circle for the Book of Revelation to take, cycling mankind back through the same sordid history it once had. Some elements, though, do not hold up under question, IE why does Hades want to bring back Winter to see Persephone if Persephone can come and go in this end of times, as implied near the beginning? These questions aren’t nitpicking, either: they represent large character motivations, which given how the story of REV. 23 is focused on character leaves major holes. Also, some characters are not as actively involved as others, such as Adam (whose major contribution is that he throws the Book of Life in the furnace along with Eve) and the Three Furies (which is understandable, as they represent the aforementioned Greek chorus commenting on the story and actions), despite being major roles. The desire to create voice roles for different voice types may have driven this thought process, but as an outsider it’s hard to tell for sure. The most jarring aspect, though, has to be the merging of several different mythologies, Christian with Greek with Chinese. Someone explained it later that in Singapore, Cerise Lim Jacobs’s home country, all matter of religions and philosophies mingle with each other, pollenating ideas freely, so given that bit of information, it makes a lot more sense to see these widely varying mythologies together in one story. As an overarching plot, however, everything functions well in the confines of an opera, wrapping Book of Revelation around with a slightly warped and reconfigured story of the temptation of Adam and Eve with the Apple of Knowledge.
In a way, that’s REV. 23’s greatest strength as a story. The phrase “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it” ring true in the ears of those looking into the symbolism of the story. Everything is a mashed together version of the beginning and the ending of the Bible, creating the necessary circle to show that mankind will never truly learn from any past mistakes. It’s no mystery why Adam and Eve are the ones who bring upon the destruction of Paradise: they were the original sinners, the ones who ate the Forbidden Fruit and doomed mankind to life tainted by the original sin. But in this version, both Lucifer and Michael/God aren’t black-and-white good and evil. Lucifer wants to bring back darkness to mankind, but he does it through the reintroduction of knowledge to man, acting as a bringer not only of light but of intellectualism. Michael wants Paradise and eternal happiness for all of God’s creation, yet he attempts to save everyone by enacting a Khmer Rouge-style re-education camp, propagandizing and demonizing knowledge in the vein of Soviet Russia (the program book mentions its response to Donald Trump both overtly and covertly several times, though the final product reeks less of populism and more of strict Maoist authoritarianism, failing that litmus test hard). That’s the real secret of REV. 23: ignoring some of the surface-level flaws, several deep questions and carefully constructed grey morality beg the audience to ask “is there truly good in this story?”
Wachner focused on writing music that held together via a tactus, otherwise known more colloquially as an internal pulse, letting the style vary from there. What happens as a result is that serial pointillism gets juxtaposed against musical theater in the vein of Leonard Bernstein or Stephen Sondheim, bel canto arias get juxtaposed against swing, and the style varies wildly. Due to using the inner pulse, though, Wachner ensured that all of the material does not feel disconnected from what comes before it and after it, creating an endlessly unfolding chain of highly controlled polystylism. Sometimes, styles nested within one another: an aggressive but static accompaniment reminiscent of John Adams and Nixon in China smashed in a pointillistic tone row above it, an actual moment from the beginning of the first act (I inadvertently got a work-in-progress copy of the REV. 23 score from the Beth Morrison Projects workshop at New England Conservatory, verified by Wachner, so that statement came from theoretical analysis). Having an extensive knowledge in the comic opera literature himself, Wachner also used Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi, Albert Herring, and Christopher Sly as models for writing comic operas, and this research shows in how the music can be bipolar in character to highlight the needed emotion. The music at times became referential too, heightening the polystylism and taking direct references from Wagner (the Tristan chord) and Handel (the Baroque-sounding consort under the introduction of Archangel Michael), among a multitude of others. Hearing such references is fairly novel and entertaining, showing the production is very aware of its lineage.
The production felt reminiscent of the recent Boston Lyric Opera production of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek with chain link fences and constructed metal ramps. Behind the fence that defined the visible backstage, a flickering neon sign spelled out “Paradise” in a font best described as reminiscent of Soviet Russian signs. The package felt as though it reached back into the late 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev era East Germany and threw it in front of us. Given how the story continued to reference Soviet-style re-education, the staging was effective and stark. The costumes reflected this feeling, an unnerving mashing of punk rock spiked hair and leather forced together with whatever trash could be scrounged together, like a license plate emblazoned with 666 or two Care Bears heads acting as bra cups, supplemented by projections for difficult effects, like Archangel Michael’s wings. Contrasted against the naked beings of Up There (not actually naked, the actors wore skin colored underwear and fig leaves), it was gritty and impolite, exactly what the designers were going for.
All the vocalists showed their own unique power in their roles, despite the unfortunate masking of many of the vocal lines in the exceedingly dry John Hancock Hall (made worse by the orchestra being amplified like a Broadway production). Baritone Michael Mayes as Lucifer growled his way through the role, exuding rage and anger but remaining personable. Tenor Vale Rideout as Hades had the best time in the hall; his voice easily carried over the amplification the best, both cutting and dramatic. Soprano Colleen Daly in the role of Persephone maintained fragility and desire yet never succumbed to feeling weak (her performance of the best-known aria “Blood Rubies” was the highlight of the production). The only bass in the production, David Cushing as Sun Tse, carried himself with grace yet allowed himself to enter into basso buffo territory, creating a unique portrayal of the music and one of the more memorable characters in the production. Tenor Jonathan Blalock and soprano Annie Rosen, as Adam and Eve respectively, meshed their voices well together, acting as one voice when they needed to while personifying innocence in how light each of them sounded. The true standout, however, was countertenor Michael Maniaci portraying Archangel Michael. Maniaci’s voice, both effected and unaffected, was a complete powerhouse, tearing through any issues with the hall and demanding attention immediately turn to him. The role was also one of the more wholly operatic ones, so Maniaci could work with the vocal lines he had to show more of his own unique strength. Each of the Three Furies, sopranos Nora Graham-Smith, Jamie-Rose Guarrine, and Melanie Long, did their roles admirably, taking what little material they were given and turning it into a nasally chorus of fluttering noise behind everyone else; each soprano blended well with the other, and all the material was enjoyable, especially in how they carried themselves, slinking around and throwing themselves every which way. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya of Juventas New Music Ensemble handled both the orchestra and the vocalists under her baton extremely well, taking risks in the ensemble balance where she needed to without overdoing anything.
All in all, REV. 23 was a comedic romp through deadly serious matters. Man falls a second time, but that’s what it wants us to know as an audience: we never will learn from our mistakes, and those who are both trying to help and control us haven’t learned either. By taking these disjointed feelings and rolling with them from stage to score, the opera clearly demonstrates what it wants to say.
See Sudeep Agarwall’s opening night review here.
Ian Wiese is a graduate student in composition at NEC, where he studies with Kati Agocs.