First, the good news about the Herbst Theater world premiere tonight of
Jake Heggie's opera, "To Hell and Back." The 37-minute "Lyric drama for
two singers and Baroque orchestra" has some hell of a good music.
As the Philharmonia Baroque, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, launched
into the work, I sat bolt upright, stunned. Shades of "Juditha Triumphans"
and the "Glagolitic Mass," Heggie's work punches you in the stomach with
a brief, intense introduction that you instantly want to hear again.
(And will, briefly, at the opening of the fifth scene.) Bartok meets
Gluck, Shostakovich merges with Bernstein - and yet, all of Heggie's -
those opening measures are to be treasured.
With the orchestra acting mostly as an accompanist (except for brief
bursts of something being said), attention is on the soloists, and what
singers they are! Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in her full glory, Patti
LuPone with her darkly Sondheimesque delivery - all to the good.
But here comes the deal-breaker: "To Hell and Back" doesn't communicate
or, to be precise, it didn't to me. I left Herbst not knowing - never
mind understanding - what I heard. Lights were down, so it was impossible
to read the libretto; both singers are famous for their diction, but
they were amplified (why?!), and other than a word here, a phrase there,
I couldn't make out the text.
Here's what a post-performance perusal of the program reveals: Heggie,
commissioned to write a 20-minute work for the Philharmonia Baroque's
25th anniversary, but "couldn't help myself... I really am an opera
composer," Heggie writes, so the work's length nearly doubled. For a
"Baroque topic," the composer went to Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and picked
"The Rape of Persephone," queen of the Underworld.
With the participation of Gene Scheer as librettist, the story turned
into a "modern tale" of Stephanie (Persephone/Bayrakdarian) and Anne
(Cyane/LuPone) in a small Appalachian town. Stephanie is survivor of
an abusive marrage, Anne is her hero, and the story unfolds through a
series of phone calls - the opera being complete with handsets and the
What the conversations are about, I couldn't tell, but the libretto has
to do with Stephanie being in rehab for battered women, Anne - it appears
- is her former mother-in-law, who witnessed and eventually prevented
the abuse by her son (Peter, "standing for Pluto").
They remember the wedding, Anne sings "Jesus Christ, do I need a
Chardonnay," Stephanie recalls Peter's drunken acts, Anne tells her to
stop, Stephanie doesn't, they sing a duet about "rivers of tears," the
music at one point shifts into uptempo, jazzy syncopation. More talk
about abuses, a comparison of their wedding rings, there are some comic
exchanges, some of the audience - who understood the words - laughing,
but then Anne sings a dirge about her son, "where is the boy who smiled
so easily?", more talk, and after the last call, Anne says: "I don't
think you should call me any more." The end.
So all this I didn't get during the performance, and I have a bit of the
problem getting it now, as I read the text. Perhaps a lyric drama should
communicate more clearly... or at all.
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