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
"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
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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