Chrononhotonthologos, by Berklee College of Music composer Andy Vores, played this weekend at Boston Conservatory’s 132 Ipswich Theater. Based on the 1734 Henry Carey play of the same name, Guerilla Opera created elusive mess of anachronism, unceasing absurdity, and hyper-parody. On Sunday afternoon, the show romped through the fleeting whims of self-indulgent and bombastic royalty, the framework for a Shakespearean tragedy that fizzled out at the last moment…completely intentionally. Anyone having expected something serious, after witnessing the jarring combination of pancake with blue jeans and puffy shirts straight out of Seinfeld, left those expectations at home.
The opera’s story didn’t matter. Imagine this vaguely Shakespearean framing device: in the fantastical land of Queerummahnia, King Chrononhotonthologos jailed the King of the Antipodes, a rival kingdom, and Queen Fadladinida tried to win the jailed king’s love. Now imagine the climactic final scene derailing. Plot strands mean nothing, characters had little to do other than act buffoonish, and events never paid off. In fact, the death of King Chrononhotonthologos happened so quickly and with so little fanfare that a character not introduced until the final scene, General Bombardinian, killed him…over a misunderstanding. Comprehending Henry Carey’s ridiculous story wasn’t the point. Really, what composer Vores built up to the traveling bards recounting Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, reframing all prior events as an unending cycle of destruction at the hands of the fickle.
Chrononhotonthologos constituted an indictment of the people in power and their outlandish natures. Vores described how he read the now-out-of-print Carey play for the first time during Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister of England in the 1980s, a time he describes as spiteful and self-important; he now projects Carey onto modern politics. But does it really reflect our time? Except perhaps for SNL, nothing today reaches Carey’s exorbitant comic absurdities.
The music blended modern traditions with some of the simplest harmonic progressions to create a hybrid of absurdity and accessibility. The ensemble of Amy Advocat on clarinets, Nicole Parks on violin and bass harmonica, Mike Williams on percussion, and Philipp Stäudlin on saxophones sat behind a curtain roughly representing backstage while a satellite ensemble of Alex Norkey on violin, Brianna Tagliaferro on cello, and Zhiming Liu on tenor saxophone sat in the rear of the auditorium, creating a stereophonic effect. Frequently, material that blended well and sounded quite consonant would be rudely interrupted by squealing from the clarinets and saxophones with freely struck percussion suggesting aleatory. In that way, the scoring seemed polystylistic and fresh for opera. Vores wrote that he sought to avoid several modern opera tropes: unending recitative and reports on events rather than visualizations. He succeeded by creating kinetic energy on stage with events constantly unfolding and action always happening, aided by the orchestra took part, too. Electronics joined at certain points, controlled by Hallie Smith off-stage, melding with the orchestra at key moments and acting as a defining sonic feature.
Jonas Budris easily emerges as the star. Both the poet that opened up the fantasy as well as King Chrononhotonthologos himself, the baritone commanded attention with a true stage presence and a timbre of suave slickness, though his voice would sometimes get lost if the ensemble played exceptionally loud and he turned to face another direction. Aliana de la Guardia, convincing as ditzy and fickle Queen Fadladinida, punctuated her vocal light lines similarly to the Queen of the Night from Die Zauberflote. Brian Church doubled as Rigdum-Finnidos of the court and General Bombardinian, who killed King Chrononhotonthologos at the end. A much darker bass-baritone, he shined over a wide range, projecting with incredibly clear enunciation. His counterpart, countertenor Bryan Pollock as Aldoborontiphoscophornio, had the lightest voice of all the main cast. He inhabited the absurdity of his role as one of the king’s advisers and played into physical comedy with ease. As the only slightly sane character, Britt Brown as Tatlanthe had little to do, but her crisp and dark tones made an excellent foil to de la Guardia. The chorus composed mostly of Boston Conservatory students did admirably considering the lack of material given to them; they danced around the stage and commented on the action as a Greek chorus might have in past millennia.
Staging was sparse. LED strips surrounding the black box stage supplied the majority of the lighting, and doubled as the second, third, and fourth walls. Bedsheets and movable draperies defined the back wall while being translucent enough to let the orchestra interact with the company. In lieu of props, trunks, milk crates, and assorted office supplies like bubble wrap gave the opera a cobbled-together and grungy look. All the ensemble members evoked powdered court jesters of yore, though frilly shirts and blue jeans didn’t quite complete the transformation. Some everyday household items also signed on, like King Chrononhotonthologos’s crown made of forks and knives or old Nokia phones acting as court messengers.
In scene transitions, several of the actors sported silly tricks, like faking to solve a Rubik cube blindfolded or spinning a fidget spinner and acting like it was difficult. Did these routines convey some deeper message about the easily distractible state of modern people, or was this more absurdity? Ultimately, it was hard to tell.
Shadow puppetry told some tales, such as the notable penultimate prison scene where Queen Fadladinida finds an upside-down King of the Antipodes in jail, standing on his hands and bobbing up and down in crazy pantomime while the goddess Venus and god Cupid materialize through cardboard cutouts. How creative this show could be with such minimal staging!
Making a virtue of the minimal staging and limited means of rendering action, the stage designers took many creative risks. Some of the decisions were quite refreshing.