PITTSBURGH — If your definition of opera doesn’t include electronically generated fog drones, pre-recorded reverb events, and digital manipulation of the human voice, it will after experiencing Christopher Cerrone’s extraordinary In a Grove. Co-commissioned by Pittsburgh Opera and LA Opera, the work received its world premiere Feb. 19 at Pittsburgh Opera’s Bitz Opera Factory. Rarely does a new opera emerge so perfectly formed, let alone presented in a production as musically and visually stunning.
Stephanie Fleischmann based her libretto on a short story of the same title by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). Published in 1922, the tale centers on the violent death of a young samurai whose body has been found in a bamboo forest. There is no plot, just the testimony of several people who are in some way linked to the young man and his death. The accounts of the three main protagonists — a samurai, his wife, and a bandit — contain discrepancies that obscure exactly what transpired.
The opera’s creators, as perhaps did Akutagawa, also looked to Ambrose Bierce’s 1907 short story “The Moonlit Road” for inspiration. Bierce (1842-1914) was an American journalist noted for dark, sardonic writing. The short story probes the mysterious death of a woman through disparate narratives from her son and a man who may have been her husband. In both Akutagawa and Bierce’s stories, the victims’ accounts are given through a Medium, a device that is also employed to great effect in the opera.
Fleischmann set the action in 1921, the same year Akutagawa’s short story was written, in the mountains of Oregon in the aftermath of a forest fire. The libretto doesn’t stray too far from Akutagawa’s version of the story in terms of plot. The one structural change is that the characters do appear and sing together on stage, rather than just recite their individual versions of the story.
Mimi Lien’s set is a minimalist masterpiece. The audience is seated on either side of a long walkway that serves as a stage. At times, it is divided by a clear panel that functions as a portal between life and death, or perhaps fact and fiction. Behind the audience on both sides of the stage hangs a framed cutout of a leafless tree. In the final scenes, when the Medium channels the dead man, whose revelations may explain his sudden death, one end of the stage opens to reveal a chamber where nothing is discernible except for the glow of soft, unearthly white light — the land of the dead.
Color is used sparingly. Oana Botez’s costumes speak more of Asia than early 20th-century America. She uses the same muted colors — lilac, blue, green — that Akutagawa employed in his short story. The stage is drenched in red during the fight scene when Ambrose Raines, as the unfortunate young man in the opera is named, dies. Countertenor Chuanyuan Liu as the Medium (he also plays the priest) commanded the stage in a gleaming metallic silver floor-length coat as he communed with Ambrose in the opera’s final scene.
In a Grove begins with the drone of white noise that is mirrored visually in the mist that rises from the stage: Both symbolize the smoke arising from the smoldering, charred landscape. From this primeval wash of sound emerge rhythms, harmonies, and motives from which entire melodies are built. A fragment of a melody that will expand throughout the opera and Cerrone’s frequent use of octave displacement in the vocal line serve as leitmotifs that unite the entire work. The musical bones of In a Grove evoke the clean, uncomplicated structure that Akutagawa prized in writing.
In Fleischmann’s version, the outlaw Luther Harlow lures Ambrose into the woods with the promise of hidden treasure. Ambrose’s wife, Leona, senses trouble and tries to dissuade her husband from going into the smoldering remains of a forest with the unknown man. What happens next is uncertain, as all three have plausible, but contradictory, versions of the cause of Ambrose’s death.
The opera’s creators place Leona at the heart of the story, but In a Grove is an ensemble piece in which the four singers — each in dual roles — are pivotal to the action. All were remarkably adept at creating richly detailed characterizations in the mysterious, timeless visual environment that director Mary Birnbaum crafted with her restrained but highly effective staging.
Madeline Ehlinger, now in her second year with Pittsburgh Opera, gave a compelling performance as Leona. The soprano has proven herself to be an exceptionally versatile singing actress who has the ability to erase all trace of self when she creates a character. The rest of the cast proved her equal in this regard.
Cerrone’s score includes lyrical melodies that permitted tenor Andrew Turner as Ambrose and baritone Yazid Gray as Luther to display the beauty of their voices. Liu’s countertenor is as striking as his intense stage presence. In the final scene, Cerrone wrote an extended duet for Ambrose and the Medium that required Turner and Liu to sing alternatively in unison and in the interval of a ninth apart. The precision and clarity with which the two men accomplished this feat was remarkable.
The orchestra was perched above the action at one end of the performing space. Conductor Antony Walker led a performance that was perfectly calibrated in terms of balance between voices, instruments, and the electronic components. He, along with his players and the singers, showed an extraordinary affinity for Cerrone’s enticing musical language that underpinned this stunning performance.