September 25th, 2007

"The Midnight Angel," Skylight Opera Theatre

On Sunday afternoon the 23rd, we went to the Skylight for a matinee performance of "The Midnight Angel," which is a newish (1993) Opera by David Carlson, with libretto by Peter S. Beagle. The opera is based on Beagle's famous short story "Come, Lady Death." When Carlson approached Beagle about using the story as an opera plot, Beagle agreed on the condition that he wite the libretto. Carlson wisely agreed. Beagle, after all, is a poet and singer as well as writer, and delivered a taut and spell-binding book that retains the essence of his story.

Georgie and I are both fans of Beagle, and went optimistically, hoping that Beagle would have had a moderating influence on the typical modern composer: in this we were somewhat disappointed. Carlson is, fortunately, not atonal, but is a-tune-al. The score at least is not hard to listen to and has the virtue of adding dynamics of volume, pitch, and tempo to appropriately underscore the action, rather like a decent movie soundtrack. Nevertheless, since there is no melody for the mind to latch on to, one leaves the theatre having instantaneously forgotten the entirety of the music, although fortunately there are both words and voices worth recalling.

The piece is done in two parts, the first act, called "The Prologue", and the second, called "The Opera." The first part runs about 45 minutes, the second about an hour, so it is a short piece by operatic standards. The Prologue takes place in the drawing room of Lady Neville, and aged and wealthy widow who is both an arbiter of society and a formidable harridan (Julie Simpson). She is attended upon by her niece, Margaret (Tanya Kruse); Margaret's suitor, Henry (Colm Fitzmaurice); Lady Neville's friend, Captain Compson (Robert Orth); his mistress, the Contessa dei Candini (Emily Martin); and John, Lady Neville's resident poet (David Gagnon). The setting of Lady Neville's drawing room is curious; evidently a room in a great house, all of the pieces of furniture and paintings except a single mirror are wrapped in stained canvas shrouds and tied crudely with rough cord, like sailors about to be buried at sea. Lady Neville is out of sorts with age and enuii, and the shrouding of the furniture suggests the deathlike suspension of her dreary daily round. When Margaret and Henry declare their engagement, Lady Neville macks him savagely as another noble but poor fortune seeker. Enraged, he stalks out. Seeking relief from her boredom, she asks captain Compton to tell her a war story she has not heard. He responds by recounting the tale of a terrible battle in India, in which he says he saw Death, "huge as a castle, huge as a mountain," on a black horse in black armor striking down men on the battlefield with a great sword. Death nodded to him, as to an aquaintance, but did not speak to him. Inspired, Lady Neville declares that she will give one last great ball, and will invite Death as guest of honor. What will happen if Death refuses, her friends ask? No one has ever refused her invitation, she replies, but takes the precaution to send an invitation to Death and await an answer before announcing the Ball. She receives a reply from Death, accepting the invitation.

The second act takes place in Lady Neville's ballroom, a bare space of eerie blue marble with tall narrow windows. Lady Neville's other guests file in, a rather sorry lot of social hangers-on. The atmosphere is brittle; John observes that the guests are both fascinated and fearful. Time passes, and Death does not appear. Laughter breaks out, and Lady Neville bitterly concludes that she may have made a fool of herself. Putting a brave face on it, she serves out champagne, and the twelve guests clink glasses, "striking twelve." There is a flash of lightning, a scream of horses, and the curtains flutter in a sudden wind as Death appears on the doorstep. The role of Death is sung by Katherine Pracht, whom we were glad to recognize from her role in "Rosina," another modern opera produced by the Skylight a few years ago. She was one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal opera, and she shone here as well. Her mezzo-soprano voice was thrilling and powerful and filled the house as she stood alone upstage and asked if she could enter.

If there is a thematic resemblance to the entry of the Commendatore from "Don Giovanni," the character of Death as portrayed by Pracht is alomost entirely unlike. She is small, beautiful, and appeared young and vulnerable in her white Romantic dancers' dress and bare feet. Death proceeds to captivate the astonished assembly with her charm and delight at having received a personal invitation to the Ball. By the time the night is ending and she declares she must depart, the party demands that she stay with them. She declares that she shall, but the price is that someone there must take her place as Death, for "a world without Death is forbidden." When no one volunteers to go on to an existence without parties, she tells them that she will choose a replacement as she was chosen long ago.

If you are familiar with Beagle's story, the ultimate ending will be no surprise, but is very satisfyingly worked out. The production continues through October 7th.

The difficult score was well sung by all the cast, with nary a false note to be detected. Besides Pracht, notable parts are Simson as Neville, Orth as the Captain, and Ryan Allen as Dickinson, Lady Neville's worldly butler, who speculates on whether he is the noble's servant, or their god as he seemingly calls them to life by lighting their lamps.

Well worth taking in, if only to hear Beagle's words. The producers hope that the Skylight's new orchestration will give the opera new life, since it has been seldom performed since its premire in 1993. This is partly a curse of new operas, and party due to the fact that the orginal setting had a full orchestra with a chamber-opera sized cast. (Most of whom sing one at a time in the modern fashion. The Skylight's writeup refers to duets and ensembles, but you can't tell that from the performance--.) A chamber-sized orchestra makes more sense and will make the piece more accessible to small companies and colleges, which will be a good thing. One does, however, wonder if dispensing with the music entirely might not be even better. I wonder how Beagle's libretto would work as a play?