Opera’s Mysticism, Vibrant On Stage, Rings True On CD

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David Hertzberg’s 2017 opera ‘The Wake World,’ newly recorded, was inspired by paintings in the Barnes Collection.

The Wake World: A Tale for Babes and Sucklings, an opera in one act inspired by Aleister Crowley’s story, from the collection Konx om Pax, 1907Music and Libretto by David Hertzberg. Tzadik TZ 4030-2. Time: CD-1: 41:44; CD-2: 51:05.

By Margaret Darby
Tzadik’s CD album cover for ‘The Wake World.’

DIGITAL REVIEW – David Hertzberg’s fanciful opera The Wake World was premiered at Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O in 2017 and received the 2018 Music Critics Association of North America Award for Best New Opera. The work, co-commissioned by the Barnes Foundation and Opera Philadelphia, is based on a fantastical tale by occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947).

The 90-minute, one-act opera was commissioned as a site-specific work for the Barnes, a museum of art and objects collected by Albert Coombs Barnes (1872–1951), a nonconformist who embraced modern European artists, defying Philadelphia’s prominent critics. Fashioning his libretto from the Crowley story, Hertzberg envisioned his opera’s protagonist Lola as the daughter in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Henriot Family in the Barnes collection.

Renoir’s ‘The Henriot Family,’ a prized painting in the Barnes Collection, inspired ‘Wake World.’

Terese Wadden’s superb costuming for the Philadelphia production made Lola seem to have jumped down from the painting to follow her Fairy Prince, who was costumed in a checkered suit like the one Barnes often wore – the look completed by his ever-present pipe.

As Lola, Maeve Höglund recreates her premiere performance on the CD. (Andrew Bogard)

Wadden also designed the red dress worn by a character named Luna, making her look strikingly similar to Henri Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman in a Landscape, also from the Barnes. For the premiere, many in the audience viewed the Barnes collection first so they would be immersed in the artwork that inspired Hertzberg’s composition. During the performance, most of us stood alongside the catwalk where the main characters appeared. Director R. B. Schlather encouraged us to walk among the choristers, and it was fascinating to hear the singers maintain their harmonies unfazed by our presence.

Jessica Beebe as Luna, reflective of a Rousseau. (Dominic Mercier)

How could this mystical experience be reproduced without the visual aspect? I was happily surprised that the sound on the two-CD set, recorded at the Curtis Institute’s Gould Rehearsal Hall in 2018, is lush and focused. Elizabeth Braden, who also conducted the premiere, uses a slightly larger chorus (24 singers instead of the premiere’s 16) and hones the choral sound into an orchestral instrument. The smooth harmonies that Hertzberg scored for the chorus come through vividly. After a single voice traces descending fourths at the start of the first CD, the chorus sings the same motif in canon, blending with chimes, glockenspiel, crotales, and wind gong, and supported by the impressive playing of pianist Grant Loehnig, who also performed at the premiere and is head of Opera Philadelphia’s music staff.

Hertzberg’s original score for five instrumentalists – violin, French horn, trumpet, piano/keyboards, and percussion – was rich and sonorous in the original performance, but the CD is enhanced by a Fender Rhodes keyboard supplementing the bass without creating overwhelming volume. Even with a second percussionist to help deploy an arsenal of instruments – chimes (with upper extension), crotales (two octaves), large thunder sheet with claw, glockenspiel, wind gong, vibraphone, two melodicas, soldering iron, vibrator, electric toothbrush, musical saw, ratchet, two suspended cymbals, inverted cymbal (into which nuts, bolts, screws, etc. were dropped), and an assortment of bows, brushes, beaters, sticks, mallets, and chains – the sound never gets messy.

Hertzberg’s score manages to weave ribbons of sound into a rich tapestry that retains clarity through Braden’s clean conducting and the outstanding recording quality. The libretto in the CD booklet would benefit from the addition of track numbers.

Maeve Höglund’s Lola has both a delicate soprano and the ecstatic quality of her character’s awakening to the sensual revelations of the Fairy Prince’s palace. I am sorry that the listeners will not see the incredible physicality Höglund’s demonstrated in the premiere, but the recording allows the listener to focus on her impressive vocal technique. Her stylistic range and versatility are remarkable as she goes from the girlishly childish “Alone?” to a viciously aggressive “Is that the man whose crimson sinews are stuck between my fangs?”

Lola is paired with a mezzo-soprano Prince new to the cast (Samantha Hankey), whose voice often sounds as soprano as Lola’s. When Hankey sings A-C-sharp-F in her line “This is what they call the house of love,” she sounds identical to Höglund singing similar pitches in response. In other passages, the mezzo’s resonant lower range is quite princely.

The booming voice of Andrew Bogard as the Bone Man, new in this role, is striking. His resonant bass is perfect for the tortured characters he performs with great expression: “I used to be whole, then the cannibals undid my flesh.” George Somerville, as Morbus, and John David Miles, as Pestilitas, infuse amazing energy, giving special inflection to their voices in the wild lyrics of the libretto. Jessica Beebe’s agile soprano and ability to negotiate the difficult part of Luna reminded me of her superb performance in the 2017 premiere.

Parthenope (Maggie Finnegan), Ligeia (Veronica Chapman Smith), and Leucosia (Joanna Nelson Gates) maintain very tight harmonies in their triadic chorus of wisdom – guiding Lola through her journey. Both trio and chorus sound more intense in the recording than in my memory of the Opera Philadelphia performance.

Anthony Creamer’s production creates a permanent record of David Hertzberg’s inventive endeavor. The score has the flavor of Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin with added crunches, crushes, and other noises that never mar the crystalline experience of the music. While it is tempting to label Hertzberg a post-impressionistic composer, he is blazing an entirely new trail. He uses Ravelesque sounds in his score, but also includes discordant, expressionistic passages to create a mixed palette of harmonic color. He draws lines with delicate trumpet (Steve Franklin), uses the pastels of soft and mournful horn (played masterfully by Bryn Coveney), and outlines voices and harmonies with violin (Eunice Kim).

This recording, engineered by Andreas Meyer and mastered by Scott Hull, is an impressive first opera release for John Zorn’s Tzadik label and a vivid aural encapsulation of the premiere. The Wake World will be given a new production by Mary Birnbaum for Catapult Opera’s 2021-22 season, presented by Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Margaret Darby is a freelance music critic in Philadelphia and an active chamber musician. She writes for Broad Street Review, Phindie, Philly Life and Culture, and other publications.