Opera Inspired By ‘Winterreise’ Makes Powerful Theater

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Tenor Eric Ferring as the protagonist in Douglas J. Cuomo’s ‘Ashes and Snow’ at Pittsburgh Opera.
(Photos by David Bachman Photography)

PITTSBURGH – Old masterpieces are again providing inspiration for new music, although the results rarely sound like the neo-Baroque and neo-Classical era of about a century ago. Works such as Max Richter’s The Four Seasons and the New Brandenburg Project commissioned from six prominent composers by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are unmistakably contemporary in sensibility and technique.

The protagonist (Eric Ferring) turns to drink after a soured relationship.

Now Douglas J. Cuomo has created an opera using the 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller that Franz Schubert set in his song cycle Winterreise. Ashes & Snow proved to be a powerful theatrical experience at its world premiere by Pittsburgh Opera on Feb. 17. Cuomo’s stylistically eclectic language, which includes jazz, rock, and electronic elements, and the bold staging by Jonathan Moore animated the story with visceral impact, while tenor Eric Ferring gave a tour de force performance as the unnamed protagonist. The audience burst into applause and cheering at the end as the lighting fell to darkness.

The production is Pittsburgh Opera’s second world premiere in as many years, after 77 seasons with none. It’s a co-production with American Opera Projects, with which the company teamed up for its first world premiere, Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King, as well as several Pittsburgh premieres of new operas. Company artistic director Christopher Hahn has vastly expanded the range of the company’s repertoire beyond the standard – back to the Baroque period and forward to 20th-century operas, including two by Benjamin Britten, and to contemporary works.

Ashes & Snow is Cuomo’s third opera, after the 2008 opera/oratorio Arjuna’s Dilemma premiered at BAM’s Next Wave Festival and the 2013 opera Doubt commissioned by Minnesota Opera. He studied jazz in his youth and was a professional guitarist before turning to composition. He enjoyed a successful career writing for television and film. Residuals, including for his theme music for the television show Sex and the City, make it easier for him to concentrate on his concert music, which include Objects in Mirror, a companion piece to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 (which is not part of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra project).

Cuomo became aware of the Müller poems thanks to Schubert’s song cycle, but his new opera makes scant allusions to Schubert’s music except in the final song, “The Hurdy-gurdy Man.” He says he also used a few fragments from a recording of Winterreise in his electronically generated sound, but they are manipulated in a way that’s unrecognizable.

In a moment of emotional upheaval, the protagonist becomes violent.

The premiere of Ashes & Snow took place in the 195-seat black box theater in Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters building. White curtains surrounded the performing space during the nearly two-minute Prologue, which featured a soundscape and black and white projection of a snow storm and a car driving through it. Then the curtains were pulled back to reveal the set for the opera – a seedy motel room in the Southwest where the protagonist has been hit hard by a romantic breakup. The staging of the first song, “Good Night,” was brutal in a way that kept Schubert far from the mind. The rejected lover is naked, though the lighting design by Cindy Limauro and the character’s body position is rather discreet. He’s drunk, and when he pukes he rinses out his mouth with more booze. He’s hit rock bottom.

Cuomo’s protagonist is gay, which is only indicated by the text in male gender references to his lover. Cuomo provided his own translations of Müller’s poems, some of which hew closely to the German originals, but others are treated freely and “The Crow” (No. 15) is a purely instrumental setting. Many of Cuomo’s most effective changes to the text repeat phrases as the protagonist obsesses on a thought. In fact, Ashes & Snow is a universal story in which the protagonist happens to be gay.

“Good Night,” the first song, begins in a monotone, but soon opens up expressively. Throughout the opera, the tessitura of the vocal line is low, with few notes above it. The writing is well varied from song to song, sometimes narrowly parlando, sometimes with wide intervals, but always effectively expressive. Ferring was masterful not only in his intensity but also in projecting irony and doubt, even whimsy, as he tries to understand what has happened to him. “The Linden Tree” is the most immediately appealing of the songs, moving curvaceously in paired notes with the charm of a folk song but more sophisticated compositionally.

‘Ashes and Snow’ is set to the poems Schubert used in ‘Winterreise.’

The singer is accompanied by a small ensemble consisting of piano, keyboards, guitar, and trumpet. The keyboard parts, decisively played by Mark Trawka, and vocal lines are fully notated, but the guitar and trumpet improvise extensively. The composer played the guitar part, sometimes touching on rock style, including use of feedback, but more often playing in a cool, simple style. Chris Wilson, the opera orchestra’s principal trumpet, was eloquent improvising in jazz styles, especially in the way he evoked the lonely reflection of those long trumpet solos often found in 1950s and early ’60s films and television productions. He also was masterful in his use of mutes, including plunger mute for wah-wah effects.

The staging is abetted by Joseph Seamans’ video projections, which provide the audience with added dimensions to the protagonist’s inner monologue and are thus rarely as directly referential and reassuring as the verdant images for “The Linden Tree” that cover all the walls of the motel room. Some of the most effective projections are seen only at the motel room’s window. Kristian Tchetchko was sound designer and engineer, smoothly integrating the amplified sonorities of the tenor and instrumentalists in real time.

Comparison of Cuomo’s Müller settings with Schubert’s is inevitable but ultimately beside the point. Cuomo’s belief that Müller’s poems could be the basis of a fundamentally different work is vindicated by Ashes & Snow. Schubert’s protagonist has more distance from the breakup (not that he can get past it) than Cuomo’s, and has more dignity, which only increases the shock when Schubert has his anger burst forth. The protagonist’s longing for death also is much stronger in Schubert’s treatment.

And for all the variety of Schubert’s songs, his musical language remains within a single tradition. Cuomo changes styles where Schubert changes nuances. Yet Cuomo’s opera is very effective on its own terms, which emotionally and in musical styles speak in modern ways. The depth and resonance of Schubert’s music in Winterreise makes it immortal. Only time will tell if Ashes & Snow has serious legs, but its New York premiere will be at BAM in the fall and additional performances are sure to follow.

‘Joseph Seamans’ video projections…provide the audience with added dimensions to the protagonist’s inner monologue.’

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