Deny Him Not His Place

‘The Lord of Cries’ takes a walk on the wild side

Lightning flashed in the distance at moments during the Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere of The Lord of Cries on July 17, an appropriate reminder of nature’s force, not to mention Dionysus’ opening lines in Euripides’ Bacchae. Nonetheless, the drama on the horizon paled in comparison to the mesmerizing spectacle on stage.

In his conception of Bram Stoker’s character of Dracula as the second coming of Dionysus, librettist Mark Adamo mines a hitherto academic stance connecting the ancient Greek god of wine to the most penetrating supernatural creature born from the fertile end-of-century Gothic imagination, and presents a libretto grounded in poetic repetition. In addition to supernatural elements, Euripides’ play and Stoker’s epistolary novel have also engendered a massive canon of contradictory criticism about their messages but, in this opera, they are linked by a singular warning of the perils of ignoring our own internal demons and desires.

Adamo and composer John Corigliano, married collaborators, have been working on the opera for more than a decade, and spoke in the opera’s “Consider the Source” interview series about the particular challenges faced in merging these stories and exploring their eternality. Adamo’s task, as he describes it, involved making a play from 405 BC relatable to modern audiences and stripping away the kitsch from a ubiquitous 19th-century Gothic figure. In the end, he says, he used Dracula as a type of “decoder” ring to translate Euripides’ timelessness. In so doing, he eliminated pop culture’s vampire lore (no mention is even made of vampires—although some audience members did show up to opening night attired as such—nor does one see any blood or coffins…although there are a few dead horses) and instead manifested an uncanny Lord of Cries creature (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo), who embodies the feared Other in both visage and voice.

Adamo does preserve the novel’s structural use of found documents—diary entries, letters, newspaper cuttings—read throughout the opera by a correspondent for the Westminster Gazette (played by Kevin Burdette). This occasionally makes for an overly expository and talky Act 1, although it does provide yet another texture in a production brimming with vivid sound and scenery. Adam Larsen’s projections also star in this show, as atmospheric and moody as any monsoon storm.

Corigliano says he used the letters of the Bacchae title—represented as a “Bacchae chord,” with B as B-flat and H as B-natural—to create the opera’s harmonic world—and that the libretto from Adamo, also a composer, included cues, such as different tones for Dionysus’ three guises and the wolf howls heard by Lucy Harker (first-year apprentice singer soprano Kathryn Henry, who replaced Susanna Phillips, in a strong and compelling performance that was beautifully sung). Subsequently, conductor Johannes Debus leads a hard-working thrillingly, drum-heavy orchestra in this opera through a deeply divergent score—sometimes harmonious, other times cacophonous—capturing moods ranging from foreboding to frenzied. One personal highlight included the music for the trio of Dionysus’ attendants: apprentice singers Leah Brzyski (soprano), Rachel Blaustein (soprano) and Megan Moore (mezzo-soprano). Moreover, the trio’s costumes and makeup, combined with their movements and facial gestures, coalesced to make them the focal point anytime they were on stage.

But the voice mentioned repeatedly in the libretto belongs to Costanzo (described repeatedly as high and thin by other characters, and one that heralds “ecstasy and ruin”), for whom the part was written. Costanzo’s singing is a treat and his performance of androgynous god/demon/armchair psychologist—aided by truly fabulous costumes from designer Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko—as much as anything sells the conceit upon which the opera is based. (Euripides’ notion of human psychology hews closer to modern ideas than that of the other Greek playwrights, and Adamo’s libretto grounds itself on Dionysus’ insistence in urging others to admit what they truly want or deny their true selves to their jeopardy.) The character is described by others as “a prince of wolves” with “something lupine in his stance,” possessed of “eerie beauty.” It’s a tall order, but Costanzo delivers.

But there are no bad performances here. Tenor David Portillo, in his SFO debut, fully embodies poor, mad Jonathan Harker, straight-jacket and all. And Jarrett Ott (baritone) brings pathos to the character of Dr. John Seward, leader of the Carfax Asylum, who pays the ultimate price for repressing his feelings.

Throughout the opera, Seward is warned to not deny the Lord of Cries his place; after all, he already knows what we cannot face. Nonetheless, he denies him three times (it remains unclear if this is due to the rule of three or an unnecessary nod to Christianity) and, indeed suffers the consequences. Adamo set out to re-situate the muddled morality of Dracula and hold up the mirror, so to speak, to those who scapegoat others to justify their own fears. This makes for some complex and occasionally befuddling narrative choices (re-reading both the Bacchae and Dracula ahead of the opera may or may not be helpful), but a truly engrossing opera.

The Lord of Cries

8:30 pm, July 21, July 30.

8 pm, Aug. 5, 11, 17

Limited tickets available with dynamic pricing ranging from $36-$300s

Simulcast tickets range from $100-$125 per vehicle

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