Call it Edgar Allan Noh.
The text of Toshio Hosokawa’s intricate mini-opera of 2012 reiterates the ominous American poem about the big black bird that repeatedly cries “nevermore”. Everyone knows it. The staging, however, is predicated on ancient Japanese ritual.
And so it unwound, eerily, on Wednesday when Neal Goren and his enterprising cohorts ventured the US premiere of this odd ode to mortal loss. The locale, not incidentally, was the fine theatre housed, semi-bemusingly, within the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The Raven, staged as part of the Biennial festival sponsored by the New York Philharmonic, celebrates the expressive powers of compression, precision and stylisation. The inherent cries and whimpers, screams and thumps, rumbles and rattles validate Poe’s despair as a matter of poetic compulsion.
The musical language reflects atonal abstraction. Twelve instruments stationed at one side of the stage provide dynamic counterpoint for the drama enacted on a nearby platform. Theoretically, Hosokawa’s protagonist should be a lonely woman who, in an intentional act of alienation, impersonates Poe’s male narrator. But Luca Veggetti, the celebrated director on duty, introduces a psycho-theatrical alter-ego, a mysterious figure who strikes expressive poses and adds acrobatic embellishment, dancing with, around and, yes, atop the agonised protagonist.
All this could seem silly and self-conscious if executed by ordinary performers. There is nothing ordinary, however, about the virtuosos at work here. Tireless and astonishingly lithe, Fredrika Brillembourg sings the impossible Sprechgesang solos with sensuality where needed and with abiding beauty, even when required to scream, gurgle or grunt. As her shadow, the great ballerina Alessandra Ferri magnetises sympathy and reinforces pathos, amplifying internal sentiment at every harrowing turn. Goren and his musicians untie the sonic knots with ongoing bravura.
As an overture to the gothic horror, Goren programmed Le Masque de la mort rouge, a bracingly progressive quintet composed by the unjustly neglected André Caplet in 1908 (and published in 1924). Among many fascinating revelations, it proves that the “harpe chromatique principale” can be a violent, also agreeable, percussive force.