IN: Reviews

Lowell House Opera Premiers The Unknowable

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Thomas (Benji Pearson) and Sara (Sula Frausto) perform a pas de deux to Berlioz’s “Le spectre de la rose.” (Sarah Erickson photo)

The plot of The Unknowable, Benjamin T. Rossen’s operatic ballet [read the BMInt feature HERE] that premiered at Sanders Theater’s Memorial Hall on February 9th and 10th, remains a mystery and reads as an academic project; yet it has the potential to become a desirable production. Lowell House Opera commissioned Rossen for its 78th production since its founding in 1938, as a part of its newly adopted mission of producing “modern operas produced by emerging artists.”

Composer and librettist Benjamin T. Rossen, Harvard College ’23, also served as music director and pianist. Composer-identified as an operatic ballet in two acts, it interpolated Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’ete and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Pairing dance sequences with song cycles is not a new idea. Ricky Ian Gorden’s Orpheus and Euridice song cycle for Soprano and Clarinet that premiered in 2001 is commonly done with dancers; and the production of opera-ballet has also been around since the Baroque period, commonly formalized in Baroque French lyric theater and first attributed to composer André Campra (1660-1774). Rossen’s score, significantly including Berlioz and Mahler and with quips of famous musical motives sprinkled in for musical humor, short-sheeted scenes of Rossen’s recitatives. 

The Overture, “Sublime,” for solo piano showed off Rossen’s significant keyboard aptitude. Accompanied by the dancing of Lavinia Kosher as Edna, the opening moments seemed promising. Moving into Act One, the sonority quickly shifted from the style of the overture. A string quartet now took charge. While the balance between orchestra and vocalists (aside from the song cycles) was disappointingly unbalanced—often having the quartet covering the singers, violinists Christian Maloney and Enoch Li, violist Joshua Cai, and cellist William Tan interpreted with magic and elegance.

The vocalists were largely unintelligible, and the surtitles didn’t seem to match with the sung texts. The voices stopped at the stage, projection falling off the edge straight to the floor. Sanders’s rich acoustic generally supports singers. Within the general vocal wash, only Leo Balkowetz, in the role of Michel, got articulation out to the hall. Most of the cast of supporting vocalists added little. Considering the production costs facing opera companies, I would urge Rossen to reconsider those roles. Employing just a piano and string quartet, and requiring a minimal set, the need to cast seven additional (and minimal roles) cuts down on the practicality of the work. Instead focusing the musical narrative on the two lead singers and cast of dancers could prove much more concise and compelling.

The Unknowable’s star performers included vocalists Aurora Martin as Edith Brookenberg and Emerald Barbour as Anna Reminwake and dancers Lavinia Kosher as Edna and Kathryn Nairn as Hannah. The vocal and dramatic prowess of these women paired throughout the narrative (Edna and Edith, Hannah and Anna). The music of Berlioz convincingly sung by Martin and dramatically danced by Kosher shouldered the majority of Act One. In recital style, Martin stood in front of the orchestra, sparkling under the spotlight. She delivered her tender moments flawlessly. She pulled the audience in and made us feel as if she were singing just for us. The rest of the scene melted away. Edna, danced by Kosher, brought weight and strength in her movements. Occasionally distracting us as the sound of her feet hit the floor, her movements felt pointed and carried a sense of relatability.

Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen served as the musical background to a long series of dances for most of Act II. In another recital format, Barbour delivered a grounded and consistent sound that the dancers could easily interpret. The ballet set during the Mahler expanded the troupe, and Kahryn Nairn as Hannah gracefully floated about the stage; the delicacy and lyricism of her movements created an interesting dichotomy with fellow-dancer Lavinia Kosher. During this scene five other dancers (spirits) joined the stage, articulating the musical embellishments in synchronized motions. Choreographer Emily Parker did an astonishing and pleasurable job at encapsulating the musical nuances in manifest movement.

The most visually and musically stirring part of the show occurred at the end of a dream sequence, as Edna and Edith and Hannah and Anna interacted physically and musically. Stage Director Haley Stark smartly juxtaposed the two pairs in a simple but commanding picture with clear color blocking of red and green creating a definitive associations. The simplicity and directness of the scene made it the most memorable of the evening. As Kosher and Nairn gave movement to Martin and Barbour, the musical style shifted back to that of the overture and provided the most convincing moment of the show. With a lovely duet between Martin and Barbour “Let us build us a city…”, Rossen had finally provided the show’s first (and only) singable melody.

The ending scene came together in a rush and lacked the dramatic intention of the earlier duet. With the full cast on stage to sing in an ending chorus (in Latin), the lack of musical direction showed. Hesitant entrances and unsure vocal lines were timidly cast out. The lack of synchronicity between the chorus and orchestra also became apparent, and the ending felt odd. Rossen left us with the vibration of a dissonant cluster chord which felt out of pocket to ring as the last sounds.

The cast of “The Unknowable” performs in an intimate living room setting. (Sarah Erickson photo)

Having read the dissertation of a synopsis and the surtitles of the show, The Unknowable rings true to its name. With snippets of Rossen’s musical voice, I’m excited to see how he will continue to define his compositional sound. Lowell House Opera, with the support of many loyal audience members, is doing a great service to the community by continuing to expand our modern operatic repertoire.

Stephanie Beatrice is Music Director for the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, Calliope, Sudbury Savoyards, and is a sought-after guest conductor. She holds degrees from UMaine (BME) New England Conservatory (MM) as well as continued studies at the Juilliard School.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I agree completely – an important work with an original composer, a superb choreography and a talented (if large) cast. The reliance on song cycles meant that we didn’t see Rossen shine as a composer, and I hope to see him shine soon. The plot was murky, which meant that the truly great moments didn’t have the intended weight, as the context wasn’t there to connect. It was academic, it was interesting, it was Harvard. An opera for all time? No. An exciting work showcasing the next generation of performance and composition? Definitely.

    Comment by John — February 16, 2024 at 2:48 am

  2. How did I miss this revival of Lowell House Opera after The Pandemic? I should have been there–maybe! OK, the fault may be my well-known allergy to “Ballet” but Lowell House Opera is an outfit I watch for and how they escaped my notice.. I did my first Lowell House Opera in 1971 with The Rake’s Progress (yes, I saw Sarah Caldwell’s too!) Did they get into the concert listing here? Thanks for the review which shows what I missed. Now I have to make use of Google/DuckDuckGo to look up other people! Now Lowell House is on a New Mission to do and maybe even create contemporary works. Think Opera Bites!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 21, 2024 at 8:01 pm

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