REVIEW of REV. 23, a new comic opera that sees beyond the End of Days, conceived and written by Cerise Lim Jacobs, with a score by Julian Wachner; performed September 29, September 30, and October 1, 2017 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall; viewed here September 30 and October 1.
The End was at hand, and it was a devil of a good time.
The city of Boston recently got a privileged, early glimpse of the Apocalypse – and beyond – courtesy of resident visionary, opera-maker, and eschatologist nonpareil, Cerise Lim Jacobs, who not only conceived and wrote the libretto for REV. 23, but commissioned its composer and produced the work via her White Snake Projects, a not-for-profit organization committed to presenting new opera while making meaningful educational and development contributions to the community at large.
Boston, of course, is a place historically inured to fire-and-brimstone preachments. But here was a very different kind of sermon. This isn’t your Cotton-Mather Last Judgment.
Billed as “a farcical hellish opera,” REV. 23 purports to reveal the contents of a previously unknown Chapter 23 of St. John’s Book of Revelation. Until now, the canonical Christian Bible concluded with Revelation‘s 22nd chapter and its saccharine prognostications of eternal peace in a land irrigated by the “pure river of the water of life” where “there shall be no night.”
But Jacobs glances beyond all of that. Wryly claiming to be not the author, but a mere mystic scribe receiving St. John’s dictation of this explosive, previously withheld material, she has created what is tantamount to a Tartarean tabloid exposé – regaling us, fascinating us, and scandalizing us with a spectacle of hella trouble in Paradise.
Where There’s Smoke….
Recorded preshow music for REV. 23 included Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Then – crisis! – a sudden grind of gears, a surge and dip of light, Lucifer and his associates rushed the stage, gnarring and howling imprecations, and REV. 23 was underway.
The action takes place in the (superficially) halcyon days beyond the Rapture. Paradise has been regained. Lucifer has been deposed from worldly dominion by the Archangel Michael for the second (and presumably final) time, and is now reduced to the role of noisome house guest in the underworld home of the god Hades (Jacobs prodigally and deliciously mixes Judeo-Christian and pagan myth canons).
But not so fast. Lucifer’s been plotting his comeback. His current chagrin stems from the failure of his most recent assay – an attempt to sabotage the master generator sustaining Paradise’s blasted eternal daylight. He’s got to come up with something else.
Hades, meanwhile, is pining for his lost love, the goddess Persephone, who, through centuries of diurnal time following Hades’ abduction of her, had been obliged to return and abide half the year in the underworld with him. Since the last trumpet, however, the goddess has presumably been released from her cycle of bondage.
Nonetheless, to Hades’ delight, Persephone does reappear, á la La sonnambula, drawn back to Hell by inveterate habit. An ensuing subplot involves the hot-and-cold erotic byplay between Persephone and Hades, along with Lucifer’s mischievous interventions that threaten to turn the affair into a netherworld ménage-a-trois.
Lucifer’s real interest in Persephone, however, entails her unique right among created beings to make free passage between the worlds above and below. Lucifer sees her as his passport back into Paradise, where he and his confederates – Hades and the three omnipresent Furies – might somehow contrive to bring darkness back to the cosmos.
A new scheme is hatched. At the instigation of the shade of Sun Tze, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote the authoritative tract on “The Art of War,” Lucifer and company will derange utopia with the help of “Art, Literature, Drama, Opera, Heavy Metal, Pop” – in short, all the corrupting influence of the humanities, which will seduce the children of Paradise out of passivity and jejune bovine contentment and into open revolt. Sun Tze is here figured as a kind of Saul Alinsky, and his treatise on warfare becomes Lucifer’s Rules for Radicals.
Jacobs’ arresting and subversive thesis thus comes into focus. The redeemed are not so much blissful as merely narcotized, bleared by an imposed amnesia about all that humanity, for good or ill, had created. References to Shakespeare, for instance, are veined throughout REV. 23, his works forming a synecdoche for all the hazards of human genius that threaten to revive mankind’s old-style, willful and perverse ways. The Furies quote the weird sisters of Macbeth. Macbeth and Lear are offered as examples of “the betrayer and the betrayed.” A copy of Romeo and Juliet is offered to Eve, who finds irresistible its distillation of the mystery of a broken heart, and prompts her to look, in the words of the opera’s memorable 11th-hour pop ballad, “Beyond Paradise.”
Indeed, so destabilizing to Heaven’s purposes is the reintroduction of art and literature that the Archangel Michael organizes an empyreal fascistic book-burning, a bonfire of vanities that recalls the dire cautions of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
And ultimately it isn’t really Lucifer or his accomplices who detonate Paradise. Rather, in a recapitulation of Genesis (spoiler alert), it’s Eve. Loath as she is to surrender Romeo and Juliet, she seizes the “Book of Life” itself from Michael and chucks it on the pyre, effectively purging all of peccant creation’s “permanent record” and thus, as the opera concludes, starting the cycle of life, sin, death and redemption all over again.
The Devil His Due
There’s something in REV. 23 to inflame and incense, entice, gratify and seduce just about everybody. In a climactic encounter between Lucifer and Michael (the former playing with the latter’s head, the latter shaken from his preening self-satisfaction in the Almighty’s refurbished esteem), Lucifer sings a stunning aria of curdled reverence, self-pity and arrogance – a magnificently toxic devil’s brew asserting God’s indebtedness to Lucifer for His relevance. It’s a Manichean paean worthy of Verdi’s Iago, yet fully consonant with Jacobs’ overarching theme of self-actualization through rebellion.
More than Shakespeare – more even than the Bible – an obvious urtext informing REV. 23 is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with which REV. 23 shares a glamorous and valorizing view of Lucifer’s rebellion. Indeed, as William Blake famously observed of Milton, Jacobs might be considered “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Except that she does know it. More unambiguously than Milton, Jacobs construes Lucifer as the ultimate man-in-full, raging against the bland brightness of the light.
Irreverent? Perhaps. But, as it is written: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”
Those aren’t Jacobs’s words. They’re St. John’s (Revelation 22:11). Perhaps Jacobs and the Bible are on the same page after all.
Look Out Below
Of course REV. 23, for all its ingenious biblical reconfiguring, isn’t really about theology. Jacobs works fluently with biblical material owing to a strong Methodist rearing, complementing a solid classical education that likewise facilitates her deployment of Greco-Roman myth.
The daughter of an ethnically Chinese family which emigrated from then-colonial Singapore to Australia, Jacobs later made a life in Great Britain and ultimately in the United States, where she forged successful careers as a trial lawyer at a major Boston law firm and eventually as a U.S. federal prosecutor. Jacobs thus has a lot of contemporary, secular things to say about issues of self-determination, coercion, law enforcement, social justice, and the problematics of securing the consent of the governed. She writes parables that throw considerable shade on repressive societies, and on the insidious machinery of forced conformity.
REV. 23 couches much of this richly suggestive – one might say libertarian – commentary in the opera’s farcical depiction of the governance of Paradise, as when its misbehaving inhabitants are subjected to “re-education camps” administered by an overbearingly schoolmarmish Archangel Michael, or even tactics of intimidation redolent of Stalin’s Great Purge (“I can expel you from Paradise with a little rub of my eraser,” Michael sneers).
Yet for all the provocative and important ideas that teem in REV. 23, the work manages to sustain its engaging and even guffaw-inducing comedy.
“I want people to have fun,” Jacobs says of her work, and one realizes with delight that she considers that to be as important as anything else.
The New World
With REV. 23 – along with the three components of her earlier major opus, The Ouroboros Trilogy – Jacobs might be seen as having singlehandedly brought on a radically new operatic dispensation, to wit: librettist-driven opera. All of Jacobs’ works are drafted before any composer has weighed in. Jacobs then audits a battery of recommended American composers and chooses the one she feels viscerally most closely attuned to her new libretto.
It’s a novel modus operandi by contemporary standards; but Jacobs’ approach might, in another sense, be seen as harking back to principles laid down in the 18th Century by opera theorists and practitioners such as Francesco Algarotti and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Indeed, as much as REV. 23 might be viewed as an ironic reworking of Paradise Lost, it is equally if not more evidently a turn on Gluck’s masterpiece, Orfeo ed Euridice – almost its infernal inversion.
Gluck and his Orfeo librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, were determined to write a new kind of opera – an “azione teatrale per musica” that would emphasize drama and storytelling in a clear, entertaining and accessible, if fantastically mythological, fashion. Jacobs follows suit, and plays rich mischief on the original structure. Instead of a hero penetrating the underworld, REV. 23 offers an underworld antihero storming heaven. Furies bar the hero’s way in Orfeo, while REV. 23 features Furies as allies assisting the protagonist’s sally upward. Both operas end in restoration – in Orfeo, a restoration of love and happiness; in REV. 23, the restoration of historical time, with all its struggle, suffering, and uncertainty – in short, a restoration of the human condition.
(Note to opera companies: wouldn’t the tight and intermissionless REV. 23 make for a virtuosic double bill with a condensed suite from Orfeo?)
Music of Two Spheres
In selecting Julian Wachner to compose REV. 23, Jacobs chose cannily. Mirroring the opera’s mediation between Paradise and Hell, Wachner has described his own compositional impulses as poised between what he calls the “Apollonian” – rational, ordered, sanctified – and the “Dionysian,” i.e., free, rebellious, and transgressive.
Wachner’s score thus amounts to a broad-board conspectus of historical styles, tics and tricks, rendering it quite appropriate as the music of a post-modern opera about a post-historical universe. Everything is equally at hand, equally valid, equally susceptible of repurposing and imitation – Monteverdi, Gluck, Wagner, Hindemith, Britten, Led Zeppelin, Stephen Sondheim, Metallica, Adele.
And Wachner appears clearly alive to the Orfeo inversion model. When we first encounter the denizens of Paradise – almost literally flower children, synchronously cavorting with homogeneously vapid smiles – the music is a witty (and beautiful) quotation from the “O puro ciel” of Orfeo. Wachner then develops, adorns and dramatically skews the quotation with an accretion of jazzy dissonances, as Lucifer and company distribute books and headphones, and the paradise people succumb to an orgy of rediscovered art, artifact and desire.
Elsewhere, Wachner writes saltatory, jagged, rangy vocal lines, replete with neurotic modernist stutters and repetitions of phrases. For the most part, the chthonic characters Lucifer, Hades and the Furies are called on to do heavy vocal lifting, singing with propulsive force over each other and over a lot of complex rhythmic orchestral accompaniment. By contrast, the vocal lines for Adam accommodate lightness and purity; those for Eve, a clement Broadway/pop sound. Wachner, it goes without saying, knows his voice types and mixes styles and production practices artfully.
There are certain standout set pieces in the score, such as the sinuous aria for Persephone – “Blood Rubies” – which has an upholstered, bordello-red sensuality reminiscent of a James-Bond flick title song. And the Archangel Michael gets some very showy, unapologetically florid baroque flights.
Playing with Fire
The performers were uniformly strong, pumped up, focused, and on point.
Baritone Michael Mayes limned a Lucifer of haughty, sexed-up virility – a rebel with a big cause, and a daemonic knack for seducing or intimidating others into it. His supremely dark tones were impressive, and his physical life – gyrating like Elvis, leering and menacing like the Brando of The Wild Ones – was pitched perfectly.
Hades was played with Mad Max aggressiveness by tenor Vale Rideout. His voice was potent and pliant. And one could not but admire his game tackling of the character’s inherent dramatic challenges – juggling thwarted erotic desire for Persephone, nimble intellectual counterweight to Lucifer’s mercurial temper, and an unstinting frustration at being made the lackey and subordinate in his own abode.
Soprano Colleen Daly played Persephone – the ultimate moll and muse to the opera’s two hellboys, Hades and Lucifer – with beautifully haunted, odylic vocal smolder.
The Three Furies – soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine and mezzo-sopranos Nora Graham-Smith and Melanie Long – were a trinity of unholy grunge-punk goddesses par excellence. Colorful, adorable and terrifying, dressed in leggings, tutus, perky neon wigs and wild, severed-doll-head- and Care-Bear-adorned bustiers, all three actresses mustered extraordinary precision and stamina to maintain an effective choral melding of their complex music, all while honoring equally demanding and complex physical staging requirements.
Bass-baritone David Cushing, as the ancient Chinese master of war-craft, Sun Tze, made a big impression, and generated some big laughs, with his wildly contrasting sepulchral vocal tones and his politely chirruped, tenor-light requests for tea.
Against the calloused forcefulness of the underworld characters, Adam was handsomely sung with bright church-choir purity by doe-eyed tenor Jonathan Blalock. (Blalock was also remarkable for his impressive physical evocation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Adam, as he – along with Annie Rosen’s Eve and the production’s entire eightfold corps de ballet – spent nearly their entire stage time virtually naked but for dance briefs and bikini-wear – flesh-toned before their corruption, tighty-whitey thereafter).
Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen played Eve with beguiling openness, warmth, and remarkably sumptuous vocal fullness. (And her tastefully managed quasi-striptease during the lovely aforementioned ballad “Beyond Paradise” was a true crowd-pleaser.)
Finally, phenomenal “male soprano” Michael Maniaci, one of several currently prominent American high-voice male vocalists at the vanguard of a revival of interest in this remarkably ethereal sound, played his own eponymous archangel Michael with elegance and even a sly touch of diva-like camp. Dressed in a white Hillary pants suit, flowing blond tresses and gilt Lady Liberty aureole, Maniaci extorted full comic value from REV. 23‘s clever conflation of the sacred and the smug.
Oh, and since the job of monitoring the gates of Hell has presumably been rendered obsolete by the End Days, the hellhound Cerberus was reduced in size and terror (and number of heads), and played by a darling, scene-stealing chihuahua named Micro Jackson (whose mistress, incidentally, is Jacobs herself).
The people of Paradise were portrayed by a group of consummate dancers conscripted principally from the ranks of the Boston Ballet – Rachele Buriassi, Kendall Bush, Darius Malone, Alexander Maryianowski, Hanna Pregont, Reina Sawai, Mathew Slattery , and Yury Yanowsky, who also created the delightfully fluid choreography.
Director Mark Streshinksy kept his astonishing array of infernal and paradisiacal plates spinning expertly, while conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya was in full, hyperkinetic command of the biting rhythms and quick changes of Wachner’s rambunctious score.
Master dramaturg Cori Ellison worked on the production, and contributed an eloquent and engaging essay about farce to the production’s printed program. (Insightful notes were presented by Jacobs, Streshinksy, and Wachner as well.)
The inventive and eye-catching sets were by Zane Pihlstrom (who also designed the production’s colorful and eclectic costumes) and featured chain-link fences, projections of billowing and sulfurous exhalations (by Barry Steele), and a huge weather balloon that doubled as a swirling planet Earth as well as the glowing central core of Heaven’s generator. (The edgy peril that the balloon might deflate or even explode exemplified the brinksmanship and adventurism that permeated every strand of REV. 23‘s texture, literal and literary). Huge, illuminated, often flickering letters ranged along the back of the set spelled out a faux simulacrum of the word “Paradise” in mostly Cyrillic characters – РДЯДDІЅЗ – an arresting visual gag, presumably inviting comparison to the old Soviet Union (or current Russia?).
Effective lighting and sound designs were by Lucas Krech and David Reiffel, respectively.
The Next Big Bang
REV. 23 represents Year Two of a five-year commitment on the part of Cerise Jacobs and her White Snake Projects to produce a new opera annually. But what, in the larger scheme of things, is Cerise Jacobs up to?
By her own account, she is trying to renew relevance for opera, prove its viability as popular entertainment, and make works that will tap new audiences – those previously unmoved either by antiquarian opera, or by heavy and derivative operatic adaptations of literary, filmic or stage properties. Jacobs is rightly proud that her works are sui generis.
She is demonstrably making headway. After each Boston performance observed here, strangers were seen approaching her, admitting to being operatic neophytes, and thanking her for the REV. 23 revelation. These are not just new Jacobs fans; they are tentative new converts to the overall opera experience, each provisionally poised to give the form a run for its money.
It should be noted that Jacobs has already generated material that redounded in a Pulitzer-prize for composer Zhou Long, her collaborator on her first opera, Madame White Snake, in 2011.
So, question: where is the opera “establishment” in all this, and when will its mandarins acknowledge and afford entrée to this remarkable advocate for the modern American opera project writ large?
Jacobs’ literary and imaginative feracities are prodigious. Companies large and small each year award commissions, and jockey to produce the next big, popular, audience-enhancing operatic phenomenon.
Is anyone looking toward Boston?
Jacobs’ next announced project, slated for the fall of 2018, is her PermaDeath, billed as “the first video game opera”; not unlike REV. 23, it, too, appears to dramatize a titanic encounter between avatars of two different mythological realms, and is being developed for presentation in what by all accounts is an utterly novel, interactive format.