Quoth the ‘Raven': It’s a Hit

Neal Goren Turns Toshio Hosokawa’s 'Raven' Into a Brilliant Opera

Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri  in 'The Raven.' (Photo by Richard Termine)

Fredrika Brillembourg and Alessandra Ferri
in ‘The Raven.’ (Photo by Richard Termine)

The NY Phil Biennial, a new music festival that is dedicated to new music, kicked off its first season at a drowsy time on the performing arts calendar, the week after Memorial Day. But a pair of brief musical dramas, each about a fantastical beast, jolted audiences from their early summer doldrums.

The more interesting of these two presentations, The Raven, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, also marked a welcome uptick in artistic quality for the producing group, Gotham Chamber Opera. After a year of offering wispy repertoire in unwieldy and uncomfortable venues, Gotham won a quiet triumph on Friday with this theater piece incorporating Toshio Hosokawa’s setting of the classic Edgar Allan Poe poem.

This success is all the more remarkable, because Mr. Hosokawa didn’t write this 2012 piece as an opera. Strictly speaking, it’s is a monodrama, a solo of about 45 minutes for a mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra. It sounds at once utterly distinctive and, somehow, inevitable. Every measure surprises, but after a moment, you think, “Of course, it couldn’t be any other way.”

Opening the work is a searing evocation of dread: half-heard rumblings in the bass, scratching at the top of the violin’s range and discordant wails in the brass, punctuated by a flute’s choked gasps, more noise than tone.

This is the buildup to a young man who sits brooding over his lost love, only to be confronted by a raven that, in response to every question, can only croak, “Nevermore.” The tale is purely psychological, the only action the man’s slow realization that he can never find surcease for his pain.

The pitfalls in setting this text are many: It’s well known to the point of cliché, the strophic structure can be monotonous, and it is, as song texts go, of enormous length. But Mr. Hosokawa gradually, almost imperceptibly, builds the vocal line against the tense accompaniment, employing a vast vocabulary of sung effects from whispered speech to elaborate coloratura melismas.

The composer seems deeply sensitive to the sound of words. For example, Poe ends many lines with rhymes for “-ore”: “yore,” “Lenore,” “Nevermore.” In Mr. Hosokawa’s setting, that syllable is the perfect vehicle for a groan, and as the narrator’s despair builds, those groans grow musically ever more full-throated. When he finally dares to ask if he will ever be reunited with his beloved—and the raven, as always, dashes his hopes—his groan expands into a wordless aria of agony, with wild leaps and glissandos suggesting that the singer has reached the frontier of what can be vocalized.

This is a piece for a virtuoso, and Gotham delivered one in the person of mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg. She sailed through the part, paradoxically never making it sound like a tour de force: She let us know that the character’s persistence was a function of desperation, not strength. A special word of praise should be put in for her mastery of “Sprechstimme,” an expressionistic vocal technique that requires the performer to speak on written pitches, halfway between talking and singing. This effect usually comes off either silly or pompous or both; Ms. Brillembourg made it sound natural, the murmuring of a soul numb with shock.

Director Luca Veggetti staged the scene with restraint, placing Ms. Brillembourg on a sloping rectangular platform set to the right of the stage, while Gotham’s artistic director, Neal Goren, conducted the chamber orchestra in semidarkness on the left. The singer’s abstract movements were mirrored and elaborated by dancer Alessandra Ferri. Dressed identically to Ms. Brillembourg in a slate-colored pullover and slacks, Ms. Ferri assumed the roles of raven, the lost Lenore and the narrator’s doppelgänger.

Everyone involved in this production deserves acclamation, but above all, Mr. Goren, whose quiet concentration as a conductor is surpassed only by his exquisite taste as an impresario. It takes a rare sort of artistic sensibility to intuit that, as a theater piece, Mr. Hosokawa’s monodrama shouldn’t stand alone but instead should be introduced by a 1924 harp piece by André Caplet, “Conte fantastique.” The 10-minute tone poem, played sensitively by harpist Sivan Magen, is also on a Poe work; it also prefigures in impressionistic form the eerie orchestral effects Mr. Hosokawa so deftly exploits in The Raven.

Next to Gotham’s extremely serious work,there was quite a bit to enjoy in HK Gruber’s Gloria—A Pig Tale but not much to respect. Thursday’s presentation, a co-production of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where it was staged) and the Juilliard School, revealed a brilliantly crafted but overwhelmingly annoying comic opera.

The story—too harsh for a fairy tale and too unfocused for satire—tells of a beautiful pig named Gloria, who dreams of romance with a handsome prince. She thinks she has found her dream lover, but he turns out to be a butcher with sausage making on his mind. Heedless of the supernatural warnings of a pair of benevolent frankfurters, Gloria rushes to her doom, only to be rescued at the last moment by the wild boar Rodrigo.

Mr. Gruber’s 1994 opera is self-consciously clever from the start, an overture that sounds like the entire Kurt Weill songbook is being played simultaneously. It’s a great gag, this cacophony of academic jazz, but it goes on for at least twice as long as the joke is funny. And that set the tone for the whole 80-minute piece: a wealth of inspiration, but no taste, not even bad taste. If ever a composer needed an editor—that’s Mr. Gruber.

But Alan Gilbert seemed to be having the time of his life conducting, and Juilliard’s Axiom ensemble played the bravura score with breathtaking luster. Director Doug Fitch used every inch of the teeny stage with something approaching genius: He even brought off the scene of the Heavenly Wiener Vision.

Among the five-member cast, the standout was bass Kevin Burdette, thundering excitingly in Rodrigo’s testosterone-fueled rant, and Alexander Lewis as the butcher, who mouthed the line “Sausages! Sausages!” so lasciviously you could practically taste the grease running down his chin.

Introducing the opera, Mr. Gilbert turned to the composer, who was seated in the audience, and quipped, “What were you thinking?” After programming this striking but deeply flawed piece, he might ask himself the same question.