John Corigliano (b. 1938)
The Lord of Cries (2021)
Anthony Roth Costanzo (counter-tenor) – Dionysus
David Portillo (tenor) – Jonathan Harker
Kathryn Henry (soprano) – Lucy (Westenra) Harker
Jarrett Ott (baritone) – John Seward
Odyssey Opera Chorus, Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2022, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA
Pentatone PTC5187008 SACD [2 discs: 138]

Of the three great classical Greek playwrights – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – it is the last-named, with his sceptical approach to the cruelty of the capricious gods, who appeals most closely to modern sensibilities. Even in the classical era his contemporaries recognised the iconoclastic nature of his final play The Bacchae, written during banishment from Athens. He castigates the barbaric character of the god Dionysus and that results in the brutal murder of the pragmatic Theban king Pentheus, torn to pieces by his own mother in the course of a religious rite. The play in its original form engendered two magnificent operatic settings in the twentieth century – one in German by Egon Wellesz, and the other by Hans Werner Henze in an English translation by W H Auden and Chester Kallman. Here now comes a version by librettist Mark Adamo which combines the ancient Greek tragedy with a more modern study of obsession and possession in the shape of Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror Dracula. The character of the vampire is subsumed into that of the Greek god desirous of sacrifice, and Dionysus now descends not on Thebes but on London where he is confronted by John Seward, the director of the Carfax insane asylum. Seward takes on the role of his rationally minded opponent and is himself mentally destroyed in a horrific mirror image of the fate of Pentheus in Euripides’ drama.

The combination of the two legends works oddly successfully, although in the process some of Bram Stoker’s characters get curiously short shrift. The vampire hunter van Helsing is reduced almost to the periphery, Dracula’s two female victims are subsumed into one single character, and Jonathan Harker as the young lover reduced to insanity is abruptly consigned to oblivion halfway through the drama. Once Dracula/Dionysus has had his wicked way with Lucy, she similarly vanishes from the action and her place is taken by the three weird sisters from The Bacchae who then proceed to the ensnarement of her hapless father.

Oddly enough these dramatic imbalances and non sequiturs do not really matter, since the drive and passion of Corigliano’s musical response does a great deal to paper over the crevices in the plot. Only at one point does he fail to rise to the occasion. After Dracula in his guise as the Wolf-Prince succeeds in his seduction of Lucy, the libretto provides for an interlude entitled Comes the pitiless dawn leading into the final scene. But that interlude simply seems to be missing. We have an extended, even orgiastic, sustained chord rising to a climax, and then immediately move into the following dialogue. It is like Tristan without the Liebestod, or A village Romeo and Juliet without The walk to the Paradise Garden. I am certain that Corigiliano could have risen to the challenge and provided us with a magnificent orchestral passage that would have lived up to the title Comes the pitiless dawn. Maybe it will come, one day; in his previous opera The Ghosts of Versailles Corigliano has established a precedent of returning to his operatic scores for later revision.

But this is a rare mis-step in an opera which otherwise grips the listener from beginning to end. The very opening, with the disembodied counter-tenor voice of Dionysus/Dracula ringing out over a background of bare keyboards (piano, harp and synthesised harpsichord) and percussion has an immediately arresting effect. The barbarically emphasised Orffian rhythms of the choral description of the industrialised landscape of Victorian London strike just the right sense of mechanical inhumanity, and the voices of the three Maenad sisters form a fantastic parody of a Rosenkavalier-trio extended from the extreme heights to the lowest depths of the female voice.

Jonathan Harker is one of those tenors who can suddenly burst into weirdly stratospheric falsetto as the spirit of insanity grips him, but then can duet with his Lucy (here his wife) as a lyrical pair of lovers in the best operatic tradition. As her father John Seward must deliver both lyrical and dramatic lines with a sense of smooth heroism which demands positively Wagnerian strengths and attributes. The cast in this studio recording (made in the wake of a concert performance) are indeed very nearly identical to those in the first stage performances in San Diego a year earlier, and one can see why it might well have proved extremely difficult to find replacements for roles that were so clearly tailored to the strengths of the individuals involved.

The singers rise fully to the challenges which are presented to them. The amazing tones of Anthony Roth Costanzo, who first rose to international prominence in the title role of Glass’s Akhanaten, here proves even more hair-raisingly ethereal in the supernatural range of Dionysus. He may not be perfectly precise in his tuning during his largely unaccompanied opening scene but his challenging tone can rise to heroic strengths elsewhere and his implacable sense of triumph at the end with his “Behold my reflection!” is absolutely chilling. David Portillo’s command of his extremely difficult role, combining lyric delicacy and romantic ardour with passages of raving that take him up into the stratosphere, is both exciting and technically proficient. In their more conventionally operatic roles Kathryn Henry and Jarrett Ott display well-honed and dramatically effective voices than welcome Corigliano’s passionate writing.

As the three sisters, at once the aunts of Dionysus and the wraiths of Dracula’s victims, Rachel Blaustein, Felicia Gavilanes and Ino Matthew DiBattista make a well-matched trio with the first-named electrifying in her extreme high register. Matt Boehler and Matthew DiBattista do well with what little they are given to do, and William Ferguson is a model of clarity in his role as the newspaper correspondent from the Westminster Gazette who sets the scene in spoken dialogue as a narrator. Chorus and orchestra respond excellently to the lively direction of Gil Rose, whose consistently sympathetic approach to rare and unusual repertoire should be a model for many conventional operatic directors.

The excellent booklet brings introductory essays by both composer and librettist, together with the complete text and comprehensive stage directions which enable the listener to fully engage with the action (no translations into other languages than English, unfortunately). The recorded sound is superlative and well-engineered with carefully judged acoustics and perspectives. And the box and booklet designs are evocative and starkly dramatic.

In all, this is an exciting addition to the operatic repertoire, which should be taken up by producers and directors internationally if they can overcome some of the difficulties of casting. The Ghosts of Versailles has already received two recordings (audio and video) in the last quarter-century; I would hope that we will in due course hear more and different interpretations of The Lord of Cries; but in the meantime this will do very nicely indeed, thank you. Some critical reaction seems to have hankered after something more ostentatiously avant garde; such reviewers are simply wrong-headed. No one interested in modern opera should hesitate.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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Other cast
Matt Boehler (bass) – Abraham van Helsing
William Ferguson (tenor) – Correspondent
Leah Brzyski (soprano) – Agave
Rachel Blaustein (soprano) – Autonoe
Felicia Gavilanes (mezzo-soprano) – Ino
Matthew DiBattista (tenor) – Captain