Less is more.
Pomegranate, bearing the epithet “a lesbian chamber opera,” is the latest specimen suggesting that grand opera is all but dead. Small is beautiful whatever your sexual politics, both for the lower price-tag and the ideal connection you make in a smaller space such as Buddies in Bad Times Theatre where the buzz is genuine, the enthusiasm palpable. Working with a seven member ensemble led by Jennifer Tung, Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori created a powerfully dramatic evening.
It was interesting to see mention in the program of the rarity of a lesbian opera. I was reminded of the only one I could think of, Erlanger’s adaptation of Pierre Louýs’s novel Aphrodite. Louýs also wrote the Chansons de Bilitis, adapted a couple of times by Debussy. There are some parallels between the stories for Aphrodite and Pomegranate. Besides the lesbian content, both stories go back to classical times, both concern a power struggle between male & female, that can also be seen as a kind of contest between two different faiths or cultures (for instance when the oppressive centurion Marcus keeps blustering about Apollo). As one might expect, the political aspect is front & centre.
At two hours long Pomegranate is a full meal. Composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale created two very different acts. For the first act, when Hale & Marshall were establishing a ritualized sub-culture of Isis worshippers in Pompeii at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption, the back and forth between characters did not have the usual discursive alternation of dialogue, but instead was more like two people telling the same story together, as though they were both staring in wonderment at the same beautiful sunset. I’m reminded of a term Keir Elam used to describe the discourse of Maeterlinck’s plays (and emulated in Debussy’s setting of Pelleas et Melisande), namely “monological”. That’s what we were hearing, the rapturous exchanges between members of the same cult as though one person was singing. While it was not very dramatic, but why should it be? The effect was largely hypnotic, spell-binding and other-worldly.
Where the first act takes us to a magical world of ritual in the second act the magic has faded, as we’re very close to home, a fallen modern world that feels more like a musical than opera. The exception was a tight ensemble among family members that was the most interesting music of the night.
As I said, less is more. The text was completely intelligible, the score allowing space for the performers to act & interpret with ease. Teiya Kasahara was the most impressive presence of the night, even if her powerful voice was rarely exploited, in a score that never sounded difficult. Aaron Durand made the most of his part, especially in the modern sequence. I was intrigued by Marshall’s choices, especially in orchestration featuring a big cello sound from the small ensemble, making for a wonderful soulful effect, especially when she turned Dobrochna Zubek loose for several powerful cello solos, the nicest music of the night. Librettist Hale opted for recognizable phrases such as “My heart broke in a thousand pieces”, so that it was easier for the listener to anticipate what was being sung. I’ve seen some choices in other libretti recently that highlight the wisdom of Hale’s choices. I recall the longer and more poetic lines from Yvette Nolan in Shanawdithit and Sky Gilbert in Shakespeare’s Criminal, had me wishing for surtitles, because there was just too much to take in all at once. Hale’s directness is more in the tradition of Meredith Oakes in her bold adaptation of Shakespeare in The Tempest (daring to shorten iambic pentameter into brief little lines that are ideal to sing). I’m inclined to think that too much poetry in a libretto gets in the way, given that we’re listening to voices, words, instruments, watching a performance. The choice to be simple and get out of the way of your collaborators is the one that usually works the best.
For me the most important aspect of the work is underlined by the space (Buddies) & the time (Pride), namely the political implications of the work, showing the struggle against oppression in different centuries. That’s the most compelling aspect of the work.
Pomegranate continues until Sunday June 9th at Buddies.