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Muddled libretto undermines ODC's 'Pilato'

Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, April 12, 2003

It's hard not to feel a glimmering of sympathy for Pontius Pilate, condemned to an eternity of vilification for what must have seemed to him the utterly inconsequential decision to crucify an obscure Jewish rabble-rouser named Jesus.

That sympathy is only strengthened by seeing him entoiled in the pretentious murk of "Sub Pontio Pilato," a dismaying new chamber opera that opened Thursday night at ODC Theater.

The disappointment of this two-act work is how much it has going for it -- a beautiful and richly characterized score by composer Erling Wold, skilled and charismatic performers, a fascinating subject. What it doesn't have is the basic dramatic wherewithal to bring that subject to life.

Instead, James Bisso's polyglot libretto, a mix of English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, dances languorously and self-indulgently around the imagined story of Pilate's life, offering an interpretive gloss on a narrative that is never actually established. With all its obscure ruminations on religion, history and fate, "Sub Pontio Pilato" somehow misses the nugget of real human interest at its core.

The show opens with Pilate committing suicide in his bath, the culmination of the decline of a career as an imperial politician.

The rest of the act is told in flashback, although the crucifixion of Jesus is touched on only glancingly; an episode in which Pilate's brother falls into disfavor with the emperor is somehow given greater prominence. In the short second half, Pilate is tried in the underworld for his crimes, and finally redeemed.

That, at any rate, is my best guess -- between the libretto's sententious pronouncements and director Melissa Weaver's stiff tableaux, "Sub Pontio Pilato" feels more like an inscrutable religious rite than a piece of theater.

Lost amid the fog is a genuine and telling dramatic irony -- that of a man defined for posterity by a single misstep. There is a tragedy there, waiting to be told rather than merely alluded to.

Wold's score, at any rate, brings a measure of dramatic intensity to the proceedings. In contrast to the gentle, almost hallucinatory lyricism of his earlier operas ("A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil" and "Queer"), the music here is often stark and ceremonial, with an apt air of stately reserve (it isn't just the Latin that calls Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" to mind).

Scored for a bone-dry ensemble of woodwinds, synthesizer and percussion, the music, crisply conducted by Jonathan Khuner, sublimates its lyrical impulse into a haughty rhetorical directness evocative of Roman imperial splendor. Yet there are exceptions too -- most notably the gorgeous and slightly agitated choral setting of the Nicene creed that forms the piece's climax.

The opening performance could scarcely have asked for stronger performers. Tenor John Duykers is superb in the title role, his singing forthright and nuanced, his theatrical presence magnificently touching.

Soprano Kerry Walsh, a few thin high notes aside, gives an entrancing performance in the dual assignment of Pilate's wife, Procula, and his servant Ptolemaeus. And perhaps most captivating of all is Laura Bohn, displaying an amazing blend of vocal splendor and physical virtuosity as the pedantic Historia and an imperial court jester.

Ken Berry, Micah Epps, Steve McKearney take on the smaller roles with aplomb, and a fine-voiced chorus of seven girls, dressed in matching schoolgirl dresses and blond wigs, serve as demons, courtesans and general commentators.


Sub Pontio Pilato: Erling Wold's chamber opera plays at 8 p.m. through next Saturday at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco. Tickets: $20. Call (415) 863-9834 or go to www.odctheater.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.


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