High-Def Scrutiny Magnifies Power Of Assault Opera

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Ellen Reid and Roxie Perkins: prism  UMC Decca Gold high-definition download with PDF booklet. Format: AIFF, sample rate 44.1/24. Total time 1:10:12. Via HDTracks.com

DIGITAL REVIEW – Rarely does a new opera receive both the Pulitzer Prize in Music (2019) and the Music Critics of North America Opera Award. But prism, a brilliant collaboration between composer Ellen Reid and librettist Roxie Perkins, explores the trauma of sexual assault from the inside out via music and metaphor that are at least as powerful as any first-person testimony I’ve ever witnessed.

prism, which premiered in November 2018 as a collaboration between Los Angeles Opera and Beth Morrison Projects, was recorded by Decca Gold during the Prototype Festival at New York’s La MaMa on Jan. 10-12, 2019. In addition to Rebecca Jo Loeb and Anna Schubert, the seemingly ubiquitous Julian Wachner and his Choir of Trinity Wall Street provide the chorus, and the musicians of Novus NY do the rest. The initial release is digital-only, with a CD expected in February 2020.

Reid and Perkins’ 70-minute opera unflinchingly examines the obfuscation, denial, and erasure of memory that haunt many victims of rape. Beginning with music that eerily conveys claustrophobic desperation, the story posits physical and inner sanctuary (represented by “Yellow”) against the all-consuming threat of the destroyer (depicted by “Blue”).

The characters are 35-year old Lumee (mezzo-soprano Loeb), her seemingly immobilized 20-year old daughter Bibi (soprano Schubert), and Chroma, a hydra-like choir that represents different shades of Bibi’s repressed inner self: young and old, female and male, sick and healed. At the start of the opera, relationship dynamics between these three is abstruse, and some behaviors are virtually incomprehensible.

Yet even as we try to understand why the characters refer to colors rather than actual people, and ponder the meaning of “Barabi, Mintite, Jasmine Breeze Bolly Shays Lake and Glow Liss, Moss and Sun Moore, Sanctuary, Linna Clove Simma Mets,” the quasi-mystical string of words that Bibi and Lumee recite repeatedly to ward off “Blue,” the feelings of fear, dread, helplessness, and ultimate annihilation at the root of sexual trauma are conveyed by Reid’s music with soul-shaking intensity.

Troubled Bibi (Anna Schubert) was live at LA Opera’s Off-Grand in 2018.

prism now joins a fast growing list of contemporary operas that address the issues of our time: These operas include America’s As One, Stonewall, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Doctor Atomic, Fellow Travelers, Dead Man Walking, and Nixon in China. Also recently added to the list are The Central Park Five, Fire Shut Up in My Bones and Blue. While some who do not take to the subject matter may be tempted to dismiss these operas as polemics, prism‘s music and libretto are so powerful, skillfully constructed and emotionally telling that it is impossible to deny their artistic merit.

Reid’s way with two soloists, a chorus of 13, and an orchestra of 14 (including three percussionists) shows her mastery. As if feeling Lumee, Bibi, and their plight in her bones, her music transforms from calm and reassuring to mysterious, claustrophobic, hostile, dangerous, and frighteningly explosive. She effectively includes two arias – “I would do anything to remember,” an innocent and touching solo for Bibi, and “I had my favorite dream” for Lumee – but a significant amount of the opera’s drama and expression is reserved for the Chroma chorus and the orchestra.

After sections of wild swirling and struggle, where Reid’s insistent piling on of voice and instruments feels tantamount to assault, there are times when soloists and chorus resort to speech and guttural sounds, and others where everyone and everything grows frightfully silent. Reid’s use of silence, and her trust in her music’s emotional resonance to hold listeners in rapt attention, is as artful as the pauses in Schubert’s music.

At the opera’s end, a plethora of pizzicatos cedes to an orchestra whose incessant violent eruptions immerse us in one huge climactic polyphonic hell.

There is but one caveat concerning this recording. While the leads’ diction is colloquial (no phony English accents and the like), Loeb’s ability to alter the tone and color of her voice to express different emotional states is excellent, and Schubert’s ability to convey vulnerability frequently tears at the heart, the dialogue is difficult to follow without the libretto. The manufacturer confirms that a 49-page libretto will be provided with the CD release, but it is not included with the digital download.

That’s a shame, because prism cries out to be heard now.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera NowListen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications.