“Embedded” and “Buried Alive”
World premier of two operas, presented by FM Opera
Friday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, 2 p.m.
NDSU Festival Concert Hall
It’s been a while since I’ve sunk my teeth into anything by Edgar Allen Poe (other than “The Raven,” which is included in a youth poetry book I frequently read to my daughter), but–and this is a testament to that author’s power to move our imagination–his mood and ability to touch on the mirky corners of the human psyche to unnerve me hasn’t faded in the least. The mere mention of “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Tell-Tale Heart” puts me right back into the mood of these pieces, even if basic plot lines have been long forgotten.
Tuesday night, as a guest of the Fargo-Moorhead Opera during a dress and technical rehearsal for their upcoming world premiers of the Poe-inspired operas “Embedded” and “Buried Alive,” (there was a great writeup on the production this week at the Forum) that mood was the yardstick by which I would gauge my reaction.
And these operas don’t fail to deliver. In a situation that calls for both faithfulness to the memory of one of our most treasured storytellers and for opera that pushes into new frontiers, it draws the perfect balance.
American Lyric Theatre, the New York-based opera company responsible for the creative effort behind these two new works, had a crack technical crew hard at work fine-tuning a set, complete with 12 suspended monitors displaying abstract set elements, that feels contemporary but not overbearingly so. Costumes (like that grubby gravedigger above) have the same effect. I was impressed to see the back-and-forth of hurried murmurs among crew members as they applied tweaks and gloss to technical aspects of the production during the rehearsal. They were really giving it what for, and based on what I saw, they’re refining an already excellent product, which bodes well.
The story comes gruesomely alive through performance. In “Buried Alive,” an artist (Victor) fears he is dead and lying in a morgue … although the presence of his love, Elena, suggests he may also be caught in a spiral of madness. This cocktail of death and madness fits neatly over the unnervingly discordant music (I was reminded of the more grinding bits of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, but with lyrics of course), and the anguish of our main characters is duly magnified through their vocal performances. Staging, lighting, and props all conspire to create a mood that is unsettling, macabre, and so very, very dark. In short, it might just goose some pimples and tingle some spines.
This is not “opera” that comes to mind when you think “opera,” and audiences should find that fact exciting and refreshing. But aside from the break from the opera norm, these works are still enthralling. They successfully hit on the essence of the legacy of Edgar Allen Poe, one committed to the unthinkable corners of human nature, a place where our deepest fears and darkest truths go bump in the night. As a performance and piece of spectacle, these operas nail it.
Nail it dead.
Image: Nathan Stark, in costume as the Gravedigger, listens to notes from maestro Kostis Protopapas during a break in the dress and technical rehearsal for “Buried Alive.” Photo by the author.