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The [Murky] Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe

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Peter Tantsits as Edgar Allan Poe, conductor Gil Rose, Neal Ferreira as Doctor (Kathy Wittman photo)

Throughout the nearly three-hour duration of The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, I could not help but miss Poe himself. Instead we witnessed the imagined Poe of Dominick Argento’s 1976 opera, performed at the Huntington Theater this Friday by Opera Odyssey and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. I missed the real Bostonian who lived from 1809 to 1849. Despite the length and scope of the opera about Poe’s final night on earth, the author’s words rarely spoke or sang to us. 

But so much of Poe’s writing is deeply operatic. One of Poe’s most well-known short stories, Fall of the House of Usher, opens with a famous, chant-like sentence dying to be sung: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone…within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” These lines are evocative, with consonance, rhythm, and musicality. By contrast, Charles Nolte’s text begins with the namesake poet opining, “I am distraught. I sink in darkness. Help me! Help me.” 

The opera offers a surreal, fictionalized account of the end of Poe’s life. The nightmarish scenes include his marriage to a 13-year-old girl, the death of his mother, a funhouse selection of a new muse, a human-size faceless doll, a trial for madness, and a departure for a boat that will never arrive, among other vignettes. Some words and snippets of Poe’s own words show up, but they do not formulate arias and whole scenes, which remain largely static.

The production, directed by Anne Harley, was semi-staged, with the singers in costume in front of the orchestra (arrayed against the back wall), used wooden crates as boats, coffins, and tables. Lighting changes and shifting arrangements of these boxes, a curtain, and a bed conveyed the scene changes.

The tedium of the enterprise seemed to be no fault of the excellent principal soloists, 46-member orchestra, and 32-person chorus. Everyone approached the music with precision, talent, and dedication. Conductor Gil Rose kept the ensemble steady and provided remarkable dynamic contrasts and perfect balance with the singers.

Sometimes, Argento’s abstract, lilting lines lost focus, but the soloists rose to the more engaging moments, projecting excellent tone when the score provided the opportunity. Peter Tantsits, as Edgar Allan Poe, sang with a remarkably tortured tone that fit the character well, and he almost never left the stage; his performance was a feat of musicality and duration. Maggie Finnegan (as Virgina Poe) and Tom Meglioranza (as Griswold) sang with vigor and passion, making the most of their characterizations. As Poe’s dying mother, the perfectly comedic Kirsten Chambers had a deliciously memorable night. 

Argento engaged us with rustled wood chimes, tolling bells, and plucked strings. Canon-like brass stood out energetically throughout with striking results. But overall, one was rewarded more with colorations than a compositional voice that demanded any work from listeners. This was dodecaphony of accessibility, one might say.

The choir (prepared by Andy Clark) excelled, from beautiful soft a cappella sections to jackal-like villainous laughter. When they reached a true forte, another quote from Poe (also not in the libretto) comes to mind: “my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters,” as the ensemble’s power rattled the room.  

The most poignant moment occurred in Act II, scene VII, when Finnegan sang a touching snippet of Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” accompanied only by a lone, droning bell. She delivered Poe’s wonderfully tone-pained lyrics, “It was many and many a year ago, / In a kingdom by the sea, / That a maiden there lived whom you may know / By the name of Annabel Lee; / And this maiden she lived with no other thought / Than to love and be loved by me” with crystalline precision and emotional depth. In the same scene, Tantsits and Meglioranza joined Finnegan. A ravishing trio ensued with a wellspring of emotion and fascinating dynamic contrast; the vocal soloists finally had music that let them showcase their stellar chords. In these two moments, Poe’s text met Argento’s music at its most distilled, and that combination allowed for the greatest impact. 

So far, I have bypassed the evening’s main issue: almost no one in the audience understood what was being said. The production chose not to use any supertitles. Instead, they made copies of the 40-page libretto available in the lobby but did not pass them out to patrons—I had to go back to the lobby to grab my own. Then, during the performance, the house lights were fully turned off, making reading the libretto impossible unless you had one of the few flashlights available in bins, also in the lobby. That this directive was permitted, however, was not told to the audience, leading a man in my row to tell an older woman looking at the libretto with a flashlight to exclaim, “Hey! Flashlight Lady! Knock it Off!” Some others used their phones for illumination, also receiving texts and calls. Many decided this system was not manageable and either stopped trying to follow along or gave up and left at intermission. 

The ensemble (Kathy Wittman photo)

Despite some odd creative choices, like blocking that could not be seen from the balcony, a step-touch dance number, and ill-fitting wigs, the performers committed to the Argento’s materials. I could not help but wonder, though, what The Voyage could have been if the composer had trusted the original poet more. Words from the artifice of Nolte, such as “My love! My Life! Dead! Twice dead. And it is I who have killed her. Myself alone.” lacked the operatic inevitability that Poe himself could have provided. In The Pit and The Pendulum, Poe wrote, “And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave.” Such lyrical, imaginative writing might have sharpened Argento’s voice.

See interview with Gil Rose HERE.

Jared Hackworth is an English graduate student at Boston College and a proud choral musician in the Back Bay Chorale. He studies the interconnections between cities, the arts, and humanities, and works with The School of The New York Times.

4 Comments »

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

  1. I find the idea of including more of Poe’s actual words a fascinating one, especially since I could not hear a word that most singers sang…bright exceptions providing my ears relief from an incredible lack of diction were David Salsbery Fry, Tom Meglioranza, and Maggie Finnegan…but from the first notes of Poe himself, I couldn’t detect a single word, so I had no way of knowing whether the words were a librettist’s, Poe’s, or even if there were words. To say it was maddening is an understatement, and I don’t know how long that first soliloquy lasted by the clock, but it felt interminable emotionally. Peter Tantsits’ biography is impressive, but before reading it after the fact I couldn’t help wondering where he had come from, and how he seemed to know how to sing without saying anything intelligible. What Argento opera I’ve heard prior to “Poe” I’ve very much liked (and even in a work as busy as “Postcard” I didn’t have this problem of poor diction marring either my understanding of the piece or my enjoyment of it). I’ve also enjoyed some rare contemporary works such as an electrifying “What’s Next” (Elliott Carter) live at Tanglewood and a breathtaking “Tempest” (Ades) on video, but even in those very thorny scores I could tell what was happening; it might have been strange, but intriguingly so. Last night was just strange. The orchestra sounded beautiful, and the orchestral writing was deeply satisfying in its color, its natural flow, and its lovely use of various instruments at seemingly important times (again, “seemingly” because due to that lack of diction I just couldn’t tell for sure what was being said, what was happening, and what were those important times in the storyline). I could have sat all night enjoying the music, and even the choral and solo vocal writing aside from text (just the notes)…but as it was I had to employ meditation techniques to get through the evening because it was too upsetting to hear so many singers passionately expressing something without knowing what that something was. It made me think to myself “this is why people don’t like opera” (you can’t like it unless you can follow a story). Supertitles might have been so helpful in this instance. I’m very sorry to rain on anybody’s parade and I don’t mean to be, well, mean…because I’m a little bit aware of what a huge amount of work it is to make a production happen and happen well…but the utter disappointment of not being able to hear so many of the singers’ lines made this such a missed opportunity…and as good as the orchestra sounded, I couldn’t help but wonder how much easier it all might have been, had the group been about half what it was, so I beg to differ with this reviewer’s assertion of the orchestra’s “perfect balance with the singers” – at least where I sat, it wasn’t anything close to perfect balance. The orchestra was just way, way too loud for the level of diction provided by the cast. I so hope Odyssey might have another occasion to perform this work, because I would really love to hear it in a performance in which I can understand the words (no matter who wrote them). I’ve enjoyed BMOP and Odyssey Opera in the past, and have a high regard for their level of accomplishment, attention to detail, and clear understanding of the music they present, so I find myself doubly disappointed…and I am so sorry to share this comment (I don’t usually comment), but I felf somebody needed to let them know there were some significant performance problems experience by the audience (and I spoke to a number of people in the audience, at random, who to the person agreed with my assessment of the problems), but that I have much faith in them that they could fix these and in the future bring this beautiful Argento score to more vivid, and discernable, life.

    Comment by Opera Lover — April 6, 2024 at 5:04 pm

  2. My independent research yields the surprising results that Edgar Allan Poe was not the original author of “Annabel Lee”; nor, for that matter, “The Raven.” He falsely claimed authorship of “The Raven” in 1845 by scooping the real author’s premiere by three days; and he never published “Annabel Lee” in his lifetime, presumably because he was warned he would be exposed if he ever dared do so. The real author of both poems was, as I believe, Mathew Franklin Whittier, the younger brother of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who for both poems was writing from real life.

    Comment by Stephen Sakellarios — April 7, 2024 at 4:53 am

  3. Thanks for departing from your usual reticence, Opera Lover, to offer such a thoughtful and generous comment. You’ve expressed far better than I could what was so disappointing about this production, along with your confidence in BMOP and OO going forward.

    I would just add my sense that much of the problem with The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe stems from the libretto, as Jared Hackworth has pointed out. Besides missing the opportunity to include more of Poe’s words, the decision to have characters sing different words over each other, instead of interactively, risked unintelligibility as it is; the preponderance of these episodes throughout was hardly less puzzling to me than their meanings. Supertitles would seem essential here, but it is hard to imagine how so much overlapping speech might be rendered in a supertitle crawl. Likewise, a copy of the libretto would have helped, but I didn’t notice any on offer and wouldn’t have been able to read them in the darkened theater anyway without an annoying light of some kind.

    Quoth the raven: nevermore!

    Comment by nimitta — April 7, 2024 at 10:24 am

  4. Tom Meglioranza, as Griswold, was easily to understand throughout. Props to him.

    Comment by William Bennett — April 7, 2024 at 2:07 pm

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