John Corigliano’s opera The Lord of Cries received its East Coast premiere at Jordan Hall on Saturday night in Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s concert-version co-production with Odyssey Opera of a work produced in full in Santa Fe in 2021. The large orchestra under Gil Rose, gave a vigorous and often incandescent account which matched the work of the excellent vocalists, headlined by counter-tenor superstar Anthony Roth Costanzo, perhaps best known for his performance of Akhnaten at the Met.
It is a struggle to summarize the work, whose skeleton is the plot of Euripides’s The Bacchae. The reader is forgiven if unable to recall exactly what happens in that play, concerned as it is with the rituals of the worship of Dionysus, the details of which remain opaque to classicists today. It is infrequently read and even less frequently produced, though in 1960 another American composer, the maverick Harry Partch, took a rather drastically different approach in his Revelation in the Courthouse Park. Corigliano’s librettist (and partner), Mark Adamo, states in a program note that the purpose of the work was “to tell this story in an idiom clearly intelligible to modern listeners.” To do so, they have taken this ancient Greek skeleton and skinned it over with elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, fans of the novel will find that this is a Frankenstein’s monster of an adaptation, a Dracula where the names and locations are familiar but almost everything else has been changed.
In the original the god Dionysus, the product of a union between Zeus and a mortal mother, Semele, has arrived in Thebes. Semele died soon after Dionysus was conceived, and there has been talk among her sisters that he is merely an illegitimate child for whom the Zeus story was a cover. He is returning to make Thebes acknowledge him as god. He has taken all of the women of Semele’s house and “stung them in madness from their homes: they are out of their wits and live in the mountains” (in David Kovacs’ energetic Loeb translation). In the mountains they engage in Dionysus’ bacchic rites along with a small army of followers he brought with him. This is mapped on to Dracula by making Thebes into Victorian London, but dropping the legitimacy story: Dionysus is returning to Victorian London to battle a society where his variety of bacchic ecstasy is denied and repressed. An epidemic of young women who disappear at night and reappear with bite marks on their necks stand in for the women in the mountains. To make just this back story “clearly intelligible” requires great swathes of exposition: the program synopsis of the opera runs two full program pages of small print. Both Euripedes and Adamo start their work with an extended monologue by Dionysus explaining his motivation. To that, Adamo adds much spoken text delivered in the form of newspaper articles by a “Correspondent to the Westminster Gazette”, delivered with arch precision by Will Ferguson.
Astonishingly, although there is much to absorb, the opera is consistently legible. The nearly 1.5- hour first act constitutes an intense musical tour de force. Corigliano has written music of dread, violence and chaos with the precision of a watchmaker. He gives the audience no quarter to relax. The music is extremely varied, with long stretches of pianissimo writing for only a handful of instruments alternating with earthquakes of full-orchestra outbursts. The music is tonal enough to avoid creating an atmosphere of alienation, but expressionistic enough to effectively depict horror and terror. Evidence: the vocal writing for a trio of women (sopranos Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein, and mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes). They are identified by the names of women of Thebes who have fallen under the spell of Dionysus; they also serve as the three weird women whom Jonathan Harker encounters in Transylvania. Corigliano has written close harmony which occasionally sends one voice up into the coloratura stratosphere, conjuring a sultry eeriness. They regularly appear, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes blended into the orchestra, to comment on the action and prod it forward. It is an effect that in lesser hands might seem gimmicky, but which he deployed so well that one looked forward to its return.
Or consider an early aria by Jonathan Harker, who in this work is a man reduced to insanity by his encounter with Dionysus and his followers. His broken mind delivers warnings to the others, which they predictably disregard. It is filled with howls and yelps and tortured turns that deepen, rather than distract from, Harker’s struggle to be understood. It was delivered with impressive vocal flexibility and absolute conviction by tenor David Portillo. There’s also an extended sea storm in the first act, with tenor Matthew DiBattista singing with beautiful desperation as a doomed ship’s captain.
A not inconsiderable portion of the audience had come to see Costanzo as Dionysus, of course, and he did not disappoint. He has a vivid stage presence, and a vocal instrument that is pure, piercing and muscular. Many counter-tenors sound ethereal — Costanzo can certainly float ethereally, but he can also sound earthy or adamantine—both Apollonian and Dionysian. While his performance of the talky opening monologue was engrossing, dramatically shaped, and clearly delivered, the Act I finale was ravishing. That finale consists of waves of brass chords, and from each Dionysus sings his theme in aching suspensions that cut through and ultimately redirect the massive sound. Corigliano knows how to bring down the curtain.
The second act hangs somewhat limply from the first. In both Euripedes’s and Adamo’s texts, the first two-thirds of the work focus on the opposition Dionysus confronts from societal authorities. In the Greek we have the king of Thebes, Pentheus; Adamo has John Seward take his place. The authority gets three chances to accept Dionysus as a god; three times he rejects him. After the final rejection, the god guides events to destroy the authority figure. Adamo has chosen to make the basis for the rejection and destruction the reciprocal repression of the desire John Seward and Lucy Harker have for one another. At best this seems a tendentious reading of Euripedes, and of Stoker, for that matter. The Bacchae contains no romance, not even the repressed variety. Tendentiousness is no sin on its own, but Adamo’s desire to make a case against repression and restraint turns the act into a curious thing: a moralistic argument against moralism. Adamo insists that repression is itself evil: it may “assuage the Priest/But it will enrage the beast within.” He asks us to “Ask for what you want, even if it is wrong for you.”
After Seward’s third rejection, Dionysus seduces both Lucy and him. Seward he seduces to violence, getting him to admit he wants to murder the god. Lucy he just seduces after getting her to admit to him her desire for Seward. These scenes are static set-pieces where Dionysus persuades them out of their repression. The tensions would have been more intense had the repression not been so wooden in the first act. This was no fault of the performers: Jarrett Ott (baritone) sang Seward with a richly colored and nuanced voice that was at odds with the stiff-upper-lip platitudes he was asked to sing. Lucy (Kathryn Henry, soprano) was similarly handcuffed, but her texts were about being pure and being devoted to Jonathan, her insane spouse. Her seduction was uncomfortable to watch; she was being seduced to acknowledge her adulterous desire even as she is struggling to accept the devastation of her spouse. Adamo tilts the playing field further by suggesting they weren’t really in love in the first place. To achieve his goal Dionysus is not above suggesting she have a little wine to loosen herself. If Dionysus were merely a man and not a god who presumably knows Lucy better than she knows herself, this would be clearly reprehensible. Or is Lucy perhaps just asking for it, since, after a single vehement denial, she asked Dionysus to “persevere?” Certainly not, I hope. These scenes don’t lack for interesting music, and they both end in loud outbursts, but we experience excellently scored arguments rather than anything dramatic. For a story based in a repressed sexual attraction, we divine no eros in the piece at all. Even John and Lucy’s “meet cute” story is framed at starting at age seven. John refers to this as the “age of reason” (reason gets a bad rap in much of the text), but it is of course the age of sexual latency.
Perhaps one can argue that the text has some ambiguities here, but they are extinguished by the extended final chorus, which didactically reaffirms the basic theme of the evil of repression. It is not that repression is good, but if Adamo had perhaps repressed his desire to make his point to his audience, a more dynamic second half might have ensued. Adamo could also have made better use of bass Matt Boehler, who as Van Helsing had relatively little work to do, but who commanded attention every time he was permitted to sing.
But these storytelling weaknesses should not overshadow an immensely satisfying evening in the concert hall. The spectacular, massive orchestra (full percussion, piano, harp, contrabassoon) played with sensitivity and precision whether en masse or in groups of three or four. Adamo’s writing is polished, clever without being distracting. At one point I noted with pleasure a series of opposing rhymes: dutiful/beautiful, chafe/sate, and pure/dour (pronounced “doo-er”, not “dower”). There were some technical issues: the supertitles provided occasionally lagged the text significantly, only to rush forward distractingly, and a constant low-bass hum came through the Jordan Hall speakers, as of an ungrounded microphone. There were microphones and a video camera on stage, presumably to record the performance, but the spoken texts did sound amplified. At the start it seemed that perhaps the microphones were on even for the singers, presumably by mistake; this resolved itself in the second act.
Given the intrinsic theatricality of so much of his music, it is surprising that this is only Corigliano’s second opera, the first being the ornately over-stuffed Ghosts of Versailles from 1991. BMOP and Odyssey should be celebrated for bringing this work to us so soon aft er its premiere, with such fine execution.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.