PONTIUS PILATE'S PHILOSOPHICAL VENTURE INTO OPERA
                                              By Paul Hertelendy
        artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music
                                                                 Week of April 12-20, 2003
                                                                  Vol. 5, No. 75
        Small is beautiful, more is less (Mies van der Rohe, more or less).
        And opera doesn't need to be grand to be inspiring, either.
        San Francisco's opera event of 2003 may well turn out to be a low-budget production of a world premiere in a small Mission-District theater with 60 or so souls in attendance every night. The immediacy of a tiny theater, combined with an extraordinary cast, made a riveting night out of "Sub Pontio Pilato" (Under Pontius Pilate), which got its world premiere April 10 at the ODC Theater.
        This is an internal drama, dominated by Pontius Pilate's own philosophical reflections on his duty and his fate after, in effect, turning Jesus Christ over to the executioners. His wavering sense of mission consumes him, and the turns of Roman politics lead him to a suicide to avoid a harsh torture-death. His scenes are surreal, with fragments of drama interpersed in the reflections and soliloquies pouring out of James Bisso's multilingual libretto.
        Though the action in this head-trip opera is almost nonexistent, this econo-production has such a telling effect that I was drawn back to catch it again another night. The orchestra is pushed behind a screen to the back, putting the singers up front, watching Jonathan Khuner's baton beat through a video setup. The immediacy of this seldom-used format is considerable, with tenor John Duykers in the title role a commanding, near-regal presence dictating awe and involvement despite the rambling, philosophical bent of Bisso's flashback- and fantasy-driven  scenario.
        Composer of this opus is Erling Wold, who is a would-be new-millennium Monteverdi. The story line, supplementing the characters with allegorical figures like Historia, parallels some of "Orfeo" or "Poppea." The vocal lines are in monody, with lengthy lyrical phrases that flow evenly over a consonant accompaniment, punctuated by some elegant ensembles with chorus. Wold sees himself under the star of the neoclassical Stravinsky here, but probably more the Stravinsky of "Oedipus Rex" or the "Symphony of the Psalms"---20th-century pieces rooted in pre-20th-century traditions---than anything else. The focal tenor part will also call to mind Britten's operas.
        Wold's orchestra is more varied than his vocal writing. The winds, percussion and keyboards are often restless and edgy, with flashes of Glassy minimalism thrown in. Without the strong casting featured here through April 19, the opera could well disintegrate and dissolve into a talky discourse on ancient philosophy. Wold and Bisso take the risk of overintellectualizing, drawing little benefit from haphazard insertion of English, Latin, (and apparently Hebrew and Greek too) into the already complex text.
        But what a lineup! The veteran Seattle tenor Duykers with his flashing eyes is a massive presence here, even stronger than in his impersonation of Mao Zedong in Adams' epic  "Nixon In China" opera (both stage and recording).  He is abetted by two imposing sopranos: The dramatic Kerry Walsh, in multiple roles, and the spinto Laura Bohn as Historia. (Walsh, whose credits include the Santa Fe Opera, is remembered as a showstopper with her achingly alluring voice during her brief tenure with Opera San Jose in the mid-1990s.)
        The three, supplemented by a trio of male voices including the rousing countertenor Steve McKearney, carry the show, which curiously makes use of body mikes. The array of holy men, hedonists, spouses and messengers means multiple roles for most, adding further to the confusion in this Gordian knot of an opera.
        The evening is led ably by conductor Jonathan Khuner, who deserved a more competent orchestra. The stage direction was under Melissa Weaver, who put her singers through awkward crawls, reaches, gyrations and enigmatic pantomimes that no one would ever  impose on the Three Tenors. The players come wrapped in a variety of cloths, shawls and sheets---just one of the countless economies in this modest production.
        And before you write and try to produce YOUR opera, just note that Jack-of-all-trades composer Wold went through making murky-gloopy videos, painting sets, and creating the supertitles for this premiere.
        As if producing all the notes for a two-hour, 15-minute evening weren't  challenge enough! He showed his versatility early: He is also a signal-processing engineer holding a doctorate from Berkeley.
        One caveat: There is no synopsis provided. A libretto can however be downloaded online.
        "Sub Pontio Pilato," a world premiere opera by Erling Wold and James Bisso.  ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco,
April 10-12, 17-19. For ticket info: (415) 863-9834, or go online.
        ©Paul Hertelendy 2003
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        Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, books (by authors of the region) and theater as well.
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