BROOKLYN – Somewhere in opera history, there must be a premiere that took place in an underground setting. But in a catacomb? Such was the circumstance of The Rose Elf, an opera by the young composer David Hertzberg that was unveiled in performances on June 6, 8, and 10 at the Catacombs of Green-Wood Cemetery, incorporated in 1838 with 478 rolling acres in Brooklyn that scenically overlook Manhattan. The production was part of a new performance series titled “The Angel’s Share,” and one of numerous events that fell under the umbrella of the 2018 New York Opera Fest. The opera comes fast on the heels of Hertzberg’s The Wake World, which was premiered by Opera Philadelphia less than a year ago and won the Music Critics Association of North America’s 2018 Best New Opera Award.
Much in line with harmonically lush, neo-Impressionistic past works by Hertzberg, this adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Elf of the Rose,” with a self-authored libretto, was compelling on every level throughout its one-hour running time. By no means does the opera need the special atmosphere of the Green-Wood venue, though R. B. Schlather’s staging employed the space in one of his most imaginative and consistently successful efforts yet.
The working environment is a variation on “The Crypt Sessions,” a series established by Andrew Ousley of Unison Media that presents major artists in the bowels of the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, Now, with his particular talent for getting a Yamaha piano into unorthodox spaces, Ousley is also exploring the greater possibilities of the Green-Wood site, built into a hillside in 1851. Already, “The Angel’s Share” has scheduled a full season of recitals and opera.
Although The Rose Elf attracted sellout audiences, its limited seating capacity of 140 poses no threat to the likes of Lincoln Center. Keep in mind, it’s a catacomb, not a theater – just as the Royal Opera’s forthcoming off-site premiere of Cave by Tansy Davies and Nick Drake at the chic underground Printworks London is, at the end of the day, a former printing plant. The Rose Elf creative team compared its catacomb experience to “going camping with lots of friends.” With Leonard Bernstein buried nearby, the joke was that his shade micro-managed the proceedings when a singer would unexpectedly slip into a gesture suggesting “The Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story.
But there was nothing casual about the production, unfolding in the 155-foot long, ten-foot-wide catacomb with doorways leading into small vault rooms every few feet. Supertitles were projected at various points along the walls, where the audience’s seats were lined up side by side. At the far end of the catacomb was a nine-piece ensemble (strings, horn, clarinet, piano, and percussion conducted by Teddy Poll) and through a feat of professionalism, the singers (starting with Samantha Hankey as the Elf) were able to stand at the opposite end of the hall and sing with no apparent coordination problems with the instrumentalists. For most of the opera, the hallway was dark, though listeners were part of the lighting design, each individual holding a fluorescent green glow stick that kept the singers from running into anybody. An avalanche of flower petals engulfed one character from a ceiling portal. Singers often made entrances and exits from the vault rooms.
Typical of Andersen, the story begins with an imaginary creature – an elf living inside in a rose – who witnesses the love vows of a young couple and becomes dedicated to their welfare. Less typically, it ends as a revenge parable. The woman’s lover is murdered by her brother, and his decapitated head is hidden in a flower pot, the presence of which reveals the guilty party. Neither Hertzberg nor Schlather seem inclined to be so literal with the ending.
It’s actually hard to say exactly what happens to the characters other than transcendence and death. Both artists work so intuitively that explanations are often not possible, not needed, and not wanted. Along the way, Schlather’s staging was extremely physical, with the lover’s corpse being dragged along the catacomb floor. One strangely homo-erotic moment had the killer running his hands over the corpse’s body, as if to examine the life he has extinguished. At one point, bright lights came on – like “last call” at a dance club – as the opera’s perspective shifted from the victims to the murderer.
And the opera itself? Hertzberg (born in 1990 in Los Angeles) wrote and workshopped The Rose Elf prior to writing The Wake World – in record time – for the O17 Festival of Opera Philadelphia, where Hertzberg has been a composer in residence. I didn’t see The Wake World, though I have heard sound files of the piece that left me not only enthralled with the composer’s dreamy post-Impressionist, Kaija Saariaho-influenced harmonic language but also wondering about his storytelling acumen. No such reservations were possible with The Rose Elf, whose score had exactly the right touch at every turn with an unerring sense of pacing.
The lushness (often reminding me of the little-known Dutch composer Alphons Diepenbrock) provided the basic dramatic canvas for the story, conveying the story’s extensive floral life – intoxicating but often emotionally neutral, as is the plant life it portrays. From there, the well-crafted, dramatically apt vocal lines rode the piece’s waves toward some sort of resolution but were constantly hijacked by new harmonic avenues. Yet never did the piece meander. Hertzberg is a master of the slow dramatic buildup that starts gathering force almost imperceptibly, until you realize the music has insinuated itself into your soul. A passage about grief, for example, began with what sounded like repeating tubular bells, and then climaxed with a more relentless percussive piano in a similar musical gesture. You wonder how a composer so young achieves such psychological depth.
Each of Hertzberg’s slow buildups has a distinct character, though sometimes with a kinship suggested by recurring motifs. Also, below the music’s surface luster is a Puccinian streak. In contrast to, say, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which implies more than it states, Hertzberg isn’t at all afraid to be more frankly passionate or to write effusive, rhapsodic vocal lines in a genuine love duet. Some of the opera’s more arresting moments, though, came with dramatic excursions into musical starkness that felt harmonically naked, with loud, slashing gestures. The smartly orchestrated ensemble sounded at least three times bigger than it was.
Is it going too far to say the singers were downright heroic? No, mainly because the cast was so well adapted to the catacomb environment, as well as its surprisingly clear, focused acoustic, that you didn’t see the effort behind their respective achievements. Also, their performances were so much of a piece that vocal and physical gestures were one and the same. As the evil brother, Andrew Bogard projected his character’s malevolence without exaggeration or apologies, and felt all the more powerful for the elegance of his vocalism. Soprano Hankey wasn’t elfish in any traditional sense. Physically and vocally, she was imposing and stood apart from everyone, as she should. As the couple, Kyle Bielfield and Alisa Jordheim sang a love duet that convinced me that this music is at least the equal of Puccini.