by Gregory Moomjy
Sitcom fans who also have a soft spot for Jean-Paul Sartre are a rare breed. Yet, for those that do, this year is bittersweet. NBC’s The Good Place is currently in its fourth and final season. Despite its many moments of low brow humor, the basic pitch for the show, according to its creator Michael Schur, was souls in the afterlife reading moral philosophy. It’s an odd premise but if the past four years have taught us anything, it works.
However, for that even rarer breed, that unicorn that loves not only sitcoms and moral philosophy but also opera, they need not despair entirely. This winter the Prototype Festival in New York City performs REV. 23. If the title makes you think of The Book of Revelations, you are right! However, if you were hoping for fire and brimstone, you may be disappointed. The opera composed by Julian Wachner with a libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs is less of a Billy Graham sermon and more Springtime for Hitler.
True to the philosophy espoused by Ted Danson’s demonic character in The Good Place, this operatic after-life steals from many religious traditions. Not only are there Judeo-Christian figures like Lucifer and Adam, but classical pagan deities like Hades and Persephone as well. Throw in the influence of the 2016 election in Act III and you have the basic structure of this opera.
In terms of plot, the opera begins after judgement has been passed on our current world. The head honchos of hell want to restart life on earth in order to counteract the militaristic puritanical purity now reigning in heaven. Persephone, Hades and others journey out of hell in order to ensure that humanity in its new form will have free will. A riff on Orpheus’ arrival in hell accompanies our heroes on their journey to the upper world. The parallels are obvious but as the kids say, “This is just like Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice, but not like that at all.”
Orpheus is not the only work or composer to be referenced in REV. 23, others include Bernstein, Sondheim, Handel, and even Madam Mao’s aria from Adams’ Nixon In China. These allusions are either well-timed for comedic effect as with the use of wah-wah mutes for the brass during Gluck’s depiction of the Elysium fields or used to illustrate the seriousness of the operas underlying message as in the dystopian take on the Hallelujah chorus, here sung to an incredibly slow tempo in the heavenly re-education camp in the last act.
Unfortunately, as powerful as the opera is, it needs to be revised. The true thesis of the opera is stated by Adam when he tells Eve that he wants to know how it feels to have a broken heart. In other words, life is only worth the trouble if you are allowed to live it. Furthermore, it is through the arts; literature, theater, opera, that we truly learn the deeper truth of being human. All of this is indeed worthy of an opera, but the orchestral writing, particularly in the first act and in the beginning of the second, is far too busy, loud and repetitive to allow for connection to the actors and characters. For example, the great comic operas of the latter part of the 19th century such as Don Pasquale or Verdi’s Falstaff allow the orchestra to comment and laugh at what is happening on stage without disrupting the connection of the spectators to the story. Also, repetition of text and musical figures is definitely a valuable tool for composers, however, too much repetition as was the case here can make audiences lose interest.
The work is full of beautiful arias and duets, like Persephone’s “Blood Rubies” in Act 2. Colleen Daly really drew on the pathos of her character and dove into the emotional consequences of her damaged relationship with Hades. Unfortunately, as compelling as the aria is, all of the proceeding music had deadened its effect because it couldn’t connect the audience to the characters. It was funny, yes, but superficially so.
True to the ancient genre of spiritual journeys to other realms, the demonic deities of REV. 23 have a guide through Heaven; Sun Tzu the Chinese thinker who wrote The Art of War. Every comic opera needs a comic bass and as Sun Tzu singer Paul An could not have been better. He was adept at all of the vocal tricks we usually associate with roles like Dr. Bartolo and Don Magnifico, such as going from one end of his range to the other, patter and holding extremely low notes for long period of time, etc.
His purpose in the opera is simple, as the philosopher who penned The Art of War, Lucifer and the gang, need someone to draw up battle plans to ensure Adam and Eve get a full life. Introducing them to the arts is his idea, however, as a character, Sun Tzu seems only to exists to be in ensembles. It might be nice if we could one day hear his thoughts in an aria.
The two Devils – Hades and Lucifer – gave admirable performances. Alexander Birch Elliott’s Lucifer was suave and possessed a strong clear baritone. Hades calls for a character tenor more than anything else, but, Kyle van Schoonhoven matched Persephone in his love and willingness to make their relationship work. Unfortunately, the thread of their relationship gets lost in Act 3. You couldn’t escape the feeling that they needed closure. On the other hand, they did just get caught by Michael and now all of them were in a re-education camp so maybe that was by design.
As the only two mortals on stage, Brian Giebler’s Adam and Sophia Byrd’s Eve, were occasionally underpowered vocally, but they brought a heaping dose of poignancy to their roles. They were apt foils for Michael Maniaci as Michael the Archangel who was self-important and slightly impotent. Just as any good regime puppet should be.
The introspection that Adam and Eve brought to their roles is especially important because their characters are the vehicles through which the opera expresses its message. Not only does Adam tell Eve he wants to know what it feels like to have a broken heart, but in the last Act, Eve tries to rescue Romeo and Juliet from a book burning and her final aria where she hauntingly yearns for the nightmare that exists beyond paradise, closes the opera.
The quest to explore life and what it means is definitely worthy of an opera. Paraphrasing a song from Beyoncé, is it, “a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare”? Nobody quite knows and perhaps the fun is in the journey of finding out. This opera makes a bold effort to put these big philosophical questions on stage and there is much in this work to be commended but in it’s present form, it needs to be trimmed. However, that’s the beauty of the Prototype Festival, through presenting and workshopping new pieces, both audiences and creators can experiment to find what works. There is a powerful opera here, we just need to find it.
Photo Credit: Margaret Durow