By Keith Powers
BOSTON – Hell just seems like it would be a lot more fun.
Like every depiction of the fiery pit since Milton’s Paradise Lost, the hell in Julian Wachner’s opera REV. 23, which premiered Sept. 29 at John Hancock Hall in Boston’s Copley Square, holds a lot of appeal.
Just ask Adam and Eve.
In a fanciful imagining of an unpublished final chapter of Revelation, where Lucifer and Hades make another attempt to infiltrate heaven and turn off the power, Wachner’s REV. 23 paints a picture of the frustrations of the devil, and his methods for tempting the peace-out, smiley-faced automatons who live up above.
Inspiration for REV. 23 comes partly from video games, partly from farce, and partly from romance. It’s highlighted by Wachner’s inventive score, but seriously limited by a hackneyed libretto (Cerise Lim Jacobs), full of clunky idioms and grade-school rhymes.
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducted the chamber ensemble in the pit, the music providing a welcome respite from the sing-song lyrics. The movement onstage – by dancers and singers – was also intriguing and well conceived by director Mark Streshinsky, making REV. 23 far from a total loss.
Wachner’s endlessly creative score moved with integrity and versatility among styles, not only rock, jazz, and bluesy settings, but affecting chamber music. Yankovskaya worked it assiduously, keeping a firm grip on the activities in the pit and the sometimes hectic action onstage. The opera played as one continuous act, almost two hours long.
Hades is also motivated by love: His Persephone (the lustrous soprano Colleen Daly), who can move freely between the two realms, has left him for heaven, mostly because of the climate.
Their plan centers around blowing up the almighty power plant, and they engage the comical – in a war-like way – Sun Tze (bass David Cushing) to strategize a takeover. They need to tempt Adam (tenor Jonathan Blalock) and Eve (terrific mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen) with apples and iPads and romantic literature.
Let that suffice for a summary. The story line, like the words that detail it, has no depth anyway. Hell is hot. Three Furies dress and act like pole dancers: that kind of hot. Heaven is cool, with its underwear-sporting airheads gazing off into the bliss. When Lucifer and Hades tempt the distance-gazers, it’s easy pickings.
The effective set (designed by Zane Pihlstrom, who did costumes as well) remains largely the same throughout. A luminous globe hangs center stage from the ceiling – alternately lit up as earth hanging in the balance or glowing ominously as the heavenly power source. Movable risers work well as shifting platforms for action and arias.
The singing was first rate. Mayes and Rideout were well suited to their roles. Mayes set a fiercely nasty tone from the opening bars. Superb countertenor Michael Maniaci – cast in the curious role of Archangel Michael, who fails spectacularly to defend heaven and somehow thinks that burning books will restore innocence – was unfortunately underused in this production. Cushing’s bass-baritone was well employed as the supercilious Sun-Tze.
It was Colleen Daly’s Persephone who had arias best suited to her lyric powers. Her “Blood Rubies,” backed by a muted trumpet (Sam Thurston), set the mood for an elegant dance interlude. Her introductory aria, explaining her unique predicament, was actually touching.
A troupe of a dozen or so dancers filled out the ranks of the heaven dwellers, and their movement all evening, choreographed by former Boston Ballet soloist Yury Yanowsky, was a highlight. The dancers transitioned easily between idioms, from dub to robotic to balletic, enhancing the action without drawing attention excessively to their own supporting role.
Costumes ranged from over-the-top, biker bad-boy leather (you can guess who that was) to tidy whiteys (another reason to avoid heaven). Fig leaves, cod pieces, and other naughty-bits coverings played a role in the plot, and in the humor. In fact, if this were a straight parody, the opera might have had more integrity. The times it did seem like a mock (or rock) opera – think Queen doing Faust – were the most successful.
But even the best music needs lyrics that move, explain, or envelop the action realistically. No matter how engaging the sound, when the Furies sing “Plant the fruit, all will go kaput,” it’s hard not to giggle with embarrassment.
Rosen, in Eve’s aria “Beyond Paradise,” proved the case. Singing lyrical art-song, with piano (Julia Carey) accompaniment, about her desire to see past the Happy Valley confines of heaven, she ended up going on and on with silly postulations. When the aria climaxes with her longing to see “where butterflies go to die” – well, that about sums up the intellectual complexity of this libretto.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith.