Sub Pontio Pilato
Brett Campbell

Wold: Sub Pontio Pilato
Libretto by James Bisso

John Duykers (tenor) - Pilate
Kerry Walsh (mezzo-soprano) - Ptolemaeus/Procula
Laura Bohn (contralto) - Historia
Ken Berry (tenor) - Herod, Sejanus
Micah Epps (tenor) - Kaiaphas, Tiberius
Steve McKearney (countertenor) - Ananias

instrumental ensemble
Jonathan Khuner (music director)
Melissa Weaver (stage director)

Thursday 10 April 2003
ODC Theatre, San Francisco

At the beginning of Erling Wold's chamber opera Sub Pontio Pilato, the title character, played by the masterful tenor John Duykers, climbs into a bathtub and orders his servant to slash his wrists. As his life ebbs away over the next two hours, Pilate reminisces over how he, a minor Roman bureaucrat, thanks to an incident he barely recalls, is transformed into a crucial symbol of a world-dominating religion.

Pilato portrays differing views of the Roman governor of Judea — that of the Romans (who wanted to pin Jesus's death on the Jews), the Jews (vice-versa) and the Christian church, which viewed Pilate as a vile but essential part of its ritual (an Ethiopian sect even canonized him). Wold's third opera (receiving its first full-scale staging here) teems with provocative ideas: the Epicurean principles that dictate Pilate's decision to take his life; Roman and early Christian history, some of it familiar to anyone who's seen or read I, Claudius (or the tales of Suetonius on which it is based); an exploration of religion's ability to transform prosaic people and events into mythic power.

So much is going on, in fact, that too much must be conveyed in program notes or historical exposition awkwardly declaimed in recitative. Understanding isn't made any easier by James Bisso's obscure, multilingual libretto — especially since this production's stage lighting often obscured the projected supertitles. What began as allusive eventually became elusive.

But once you gave up on trying to figure out what's happening, you could imbibe the piquancy of Clyde Sheets's ritualistic staging and Wold's compelling music. Using only a single major prop (that bathtub, which functions at other times as throne, funeral bier and so on), director Melissa Weaver kept things moving briskly; Wold created obliquely relevant, if often anachronistic video images (graveyards, an American flag) which were projected on the scrim that divided the orchestra at the rear of the stage from the action in front. Costume designer Esmerelda's sometimes bizarre, sometimes downright kinky choices — Mad Max meets Morticia Addams for Pilate's wife, Procula; a truly spooky girls' chorus decked out in plaid Catholic schoolgirl outfits (representing the institutional church, I suppose) — reminded us, perhaps too often, that this is a "historical fantasy."

Soaring over the confusion was Wold's striking score for winds, percussion and keyboards. An intriguing composer who has moved from academic avant-gardism to guitar rock to theater music, Wold leans heavily in this score on the Minimalist-influenced pulse and consonant chords typical of his recent work. But as his program notes acknowledge, he has borrowed more from Stravinsky than just the dry instrumental lineup — the atmosphere is suffused by a cool, gripping lyricism.

At times, the first act succumbed to Wold's tendency to latch onto a mood and hold it. With so little to support him, musically or dramatically, not even the superbly expressive (those eyes!) Duykers, who created the role of Mao in Nixon in China and infused Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony with much-needed dramatic power, could keep the early scenes from drifting. But as more characters and musical variety (including passages of quasi-Brecht/Weill bluster) subsequently emerged, the opera's richness deepened.

The instrumental performance, conducted by Berkeley Opera's Jonathan Khuner, was generally serviceable, at least for a premiere performance which was occasionally marred by the usual opening-night technical glitches.

Yet all flaws faded as the opera reached its climax. After political tides shift, forcing his dismissal from office and recall to Rome, Pilate faces death and — only then — his trial and canonization. Following a shimmering choral setting of the Nicene Creed that's as lovely as any new music I've heard in years, Pilate and Procula are slowly garbed as saints, culminating in a marvelous tableau vivant whose image has persisted in my memory. (A mood-puncturing, explanatory coda set in the 1970s seemed gratuitously tacked on.)

I saw Pilato shortly after the West Coast premiere, in Portland, Oregon, of William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, which straightforwardly presents the action of Arthur Miller's tragedy of Italian immigrants in Brooklyn. Although Bolcom's harmonic language clearly belongs to the late 20th century, the form of his opera wouldn't surprise Puccini fans. As accomplished as that production was, the images and music from Pilato have lingered longer for me. Its less-literal idiom seems much more modern and somehow timeless; its theatrical artifices feel natural to the story, as does the creators' ambitiously elliptical, if sometimes frustratingly oblique, manner of telling it. The juxtaposition of the two was striking: Bolcom's View embracing opera's past, Wold's less-literal creation perhaps pointing a way into the genre's future.

© andante Corp. May 2003. All rights reserved.
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