Opera Philadelphia makes a strong case for Hosokawa’s haunting “The Raven”

Thu Sep 22, 2022 at 12:32 pm
By Alex Baker

Kristen Choi is the narrator-protagonist in Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven at Opera Philadelphia. Photo: Steven Pisano

Opera Philadelphia opened its “Festival 022” Wednesday night with a production of Toshio Hosokawa’s The Raven, a monodrama for mezzo soprano and ensemble. The roughly 40-minute work was presented in tandem with a companion participatory theatre piece developed by the theatre company Obvious Agency. 

It is perhaps difficult these days to divorce Poe’s 1845 poem from its place as a cultural touchstone for a certain arch, 19th-century sensibility (see The Simpsons), but the Japanese composer’s opera, completed in 2012, approaches the poem afresh as both dramatic narrative and psychological horror. 

Hosokawa’s style, which explores Japanese music through a Western lens (or perhaps vice versa) makes for vivid theater music. Minimalist figures in the piano, droning and skittering violins, and breathy woodwinds create a continuous sonic landscape punctuated by cinematic effects (the recurring timpani figures for the “rapping” at the door) and explosive climaxes for the massed ensemble. The vocal writing mixes substantial sections of half-sung, declaimed text with plaintive passages and virtuoso flourishes, bringing a range of colors to bear on the poetry’s shifting modes.

In the vocally and dramatically demanding role of the singer-narrator, mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi delivered a striking performance, bringing warmth and beauty to the craggy vocal writing as well as a strong theatrical sensibility to the narrative material. Getting to hear such high-quality music-making in close quarters provided added pleasure.

As the work reached its climax, the staging veered into a more literal portrayal of the narrator’s descent into madness, even adding a sort of redemption and catharsis element to the Lenore mystery. Choi did an admirable job of committing to these beats, but the added emotionality on top of the poem’s baroque language and Hosokawa’s expressionistic score felt somewhat reductive and sentimental.

Photo: Steven Pisano

Director Aria Umezawa staged the work as a continuous dialogue in movement between the narrator and the figure of the Raven, danced by Muyu Ruba. While Umezawa took pains in the program interview to state that the production does not directly utilize Noh theatre elements, the influences in the score and the stylized pantomime movements of the performers certainly evoke what a Western audience would associate with that style. The action matched well with similar influences in the score and the formality of the poetry.

The production was presented on the stage of the Miller Theatre, as a black box space with seating on all sides (monitors showed the conductor at the opposite end from the orchestra to allow the singer full use of the space). The set design, with illuminated gateways dotting a stage littered with photographs and torn pages, conjured a space of lost memories and echoed the repeated door images in the poem; the lighting design added to the sense of bleak despair and made creative use of the space by isolating different areas.

The musical forces assembled by Opera Philadelphia made a strong case for the score. Conductor Eiki Isomura elicited a precise, nuanced performance from the ensemble of a dozen players, including several principals of the Opera Philadelphia orchestra. His control was evident down to the carefully calibrated, seemingly endless decrescendo that closes the work. 

The first half of the evening was devoted to a participatory theater experience. Company members who appeared briefly in ensemble roles in The Raven led groups of the audience to different parts of the theater and presented short original pieces drawing on the poem’s themes of captivity and memory, each of the actors playing their own iteration of “Lenore,” with elements involving the audience. While there were some thoughtful moments and the cast was very enthusiastic, it’s wasn’t clear that this added much to the evening beyond its novelty.

The Raven runs through October 1 at the Miller Theater in Philadelphia. operaphila.org


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