Lyric Opera

Last Saturday evening an initially dubious audience attending the opening of Lyric Opera’s The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe discovered that a modern work (only 14 years old) can be an entirely tolerable experience, perhaps even worth a second viewing. This is not to say that it will replace Madama Butterfly in the repertoire, but fewer people jumped ship before the end of this show than bolted from Alceste a few weeks earlier.

Dominick Argento’s The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe is the first installment in the Lyric’s “Toward the 21st Century” initiative. Much heralded by the critical establishment, this docket of contemporary works planned for the next decade has been causing some apprehension in the ranks of Lyric Opera subscription holders. And that subscription program is the principal reason that a relatively new and almost entirely unheard of work can claim eight sold-out performances. Yet Saturday’s subscribers now know that The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe was not being administered to them for their own good, but is rather a legitimate work of 20th-century theater that shares an emotional universe with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, even if its music is only slightly related.

The action revolves around the mysterious circumstances of Edgar Allan Poe’s death and the presumed psychological impact on the writer of the many tragedies that filled his personal life. Yet the details of Poe’s death are sufficiently foggy that this opera could be shaped as a psychological drama, not an attempt to portray literal events.

In the first act a tormented Poe resolves to sail from Richmond to Baltimore. His doctor warns against the trip, but Poe’s evil genius Griswold urges him on. Once he is aboard ship, a group of itinerant actors portray some of the most important, usually tragic, events from Poe’s life, including the death of his mother and his marriage to the extremely young Virginia Clemm. In the second act it becomes clear that Poe has only imagined the re-created tragedies of the first act, and he is then accused of madness and put on trial. This leads to more reconstructed events of Poe’s life, presumably also hallucinatory–though whether the events are real or not seems beside the point. The action then moves through the death agony of Virginia Poe, and her husband’s guilty feeling that he has sacrificed his love to his artistry. It ends with Poe’s death and a gloating Griswold barring the doctor from the poet’s door.

The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe was written as an American bicentennial offering, and it has had few performances since its 1976 premiere with the commissioning Minnesota Opera. For Lyric’s performances extensive cuts in the original were made, leaving one act of about 55 minutes and a second of about 45. Dramatically, the work might just as well be a single hundred-minute act. But such an arrangement would constitute cruel and unusual punishment for the tenor who sings the title role, with its high tessitura and its great length–he must be onstage for virtually all of the action. The cuts have changed some of the original dramatic thrust of the work to emphasize the disintegration of the intellect of the writer as he approaches death. This is a view that is also stressed by director Frank Galati, whose device of having all the other passengers on the voyage wear masks of Poe’s face underlines the interpretation that the action is taking place in Poe’s imagination.

Argento’s music is well suited to the subject matter–even if he is a little overfond of percussion–and the music written for Virginia Poe and the chorus is haunting. The prolonged singing above the staff demanded from the tenor may be effective in portraying a weak character on the verge of mental disintegration, but it also shows the disregard for the limits of the human voice so common in much 20th-century writing. The overall effect of the music, the text, and the staging is striking and surreal rather than pretty or appealing.

Donald Kaasch gave a superb performance as Poe. Despite the difficulty of the scoring, he maintained a pleasing tone when many would have lapsed into screeching or whining. Yet the nature of the stage work tended to make Kaasch’s Poe the only well-defined character, leaving the other players more abstract and less human–and therefore more memorable for their musical performances than dramatic effect. For example, Richard Stilwell’s Griswold was well sung but dramatically pale. This was especially disappointing because Griswold has the potential to be such a powerful villain–he’s like Montresor in Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado,” the man who, when insulted, disguises his feelings the better to gain a complete revenge. Though playing a paradigm instead of a living woman, Ruth Ann Swenson as Virginia Poe was always effective, especially in the setting of Poe’s well-known poem “Annabel Lee.”

One of the great felicities of this production is that for once we have a contemporary work with a first-string cast in the leading roles–instead of players who have survived only by carving out niches as specialists in contemporary works. Christopher Keene, who conducted Satyagraha at Lyric in 1987, led the orchestra and chorus expertly through this difficult score. John Conklin’s set designs, in conjunction with John Boesche’s projections–which really can’t be talked about as two separate items–provided the correct atmosphere for this fundamentally pessimistic work. Frank Galati’s direction was effective in showing Poe’s decline, though at times it verged on the self-conscious. The surtitles for this English-language work were entirely in order, as operatic English can be hard to understand no matter how meticulous the diction of the singers. The occasional statements about events in Poe’s life that were mixed in with the text were also useful.

The unrelieved darkness of this work will not make it universally popular, but the undeniable power of Argento’s score and of this realization should make it memorable.