So I couldn’t stop thinking about Star Wars while taking in the Santa Fe Opera’s American premiere of Adriana Mater, and I feel a little bad about that. I mean, what gives a lowly freelancer the right to associate hoity, highbrow contemporary opera with pulpy, low-rent science fiction?
Well, it’s a father-son thing. Both these stories revolve around evil fathers who give birth to sons with the potential to turn to the dark side. In this case, there’s no shame in duplication, because this premise is infinitely recyclable. It gouges to the heart of that eternal question: Is a person’s moral direction determined by environment or genetic coding?
I suppose the only sensible answer is that it’s determined by both, and that’s what makes the tense dynamic between nature and nurture so endlessly fascinating. In Adriana Mater, as in Star Wars, the climactic scene portrays the son, eager to exact revenge, in a position to submit to his darker nature and murder his own evil father. There’s only one satisfactory resolution to this scenario. The son can’t kill the father, otherwise the possibility of redemption would be nullified. In real life, people habitually pass up opportunities for redemption. In art, that sort of behavior is rarely allowed, and it shouldn’t be.
We have a gut need to believe in free will, despite any verifiable evidence that it exists, and this gut need often gets absorbed into artistic creation. In everyday life, we can paint ourselves into corners with elaborate arguments about the impossibility of free will, but at the end of the day we all feel the pressing need to believe we retain ultimate responsibility for our own lives.
Regular Santa Fe Opera goers will remember the names Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf. Back in 2002, the SFO hosted the American premiere of L’Amour de Loin, a shimmery modern piece featuring a collaboration between Finnish composer Saariaho and Lebanese librettist Maalouf. It was an amazing work, not least because the main visual elements included a stage flooded with water and a neon canoe floating across it.
The duo rejoins forces for Adriana Mater, but the ambience is entirely different this time around. Semitransparent, resinous buildings are the prop, illuminated from within so as to sometimes look like a delicious lime sorbet and sometimes resemble the flaming gates of hell. The primary architectural feature is hemispherical, like a faraway planetary object rising over the horizon.
The story is set in a nameless vicinity on the brink of war. It begins with Adriana (Monica Groop) harassed by a drunk man, Tsargo (Matthew Best), who she danced with years ago. She rejects him. When the humiliated Tsargo returns, this time with a gun, he breaks into her house and rapes her.
Years later, Adriana’s son, Yonas (Joseph Kaiser), the product of that rape, learns that his father is not a war hero, as he has been told, but a serial rapist. Tsargo, who is now blind, returns to the village. Yonas hunts him down with a rifle, fully intending to murder him, but he can’t bring himself to do it.
Saariaho sets Maalouf’s libretto to highly textured music, punctuated with energetic and sometimes violent percussion, and electronically enhanced choruses. The scene where Adriana is raped is both horrifying and brilliant, an unrestrained sonic brutality inflicted directly on the audience.
The music tells the story much better than the words. For my tastes, the instrumental compositions were much more satisfying than the vocals, although the performances by the four singers are all quite good. The instrumental passages have an idiosyncratic, unpredictable quality missing from the more conventional vocal lines.
All in all, though, I enjoyed Adriana Mater even more than L’Amour de Loin. But despite the (somewhat) happy ending, this can be grim stuff, so be prepared. No fuzzy Ewoks singing happy tunes. No R2D2 for comic relief. As I walked up the aisle during intermission, I saw a woman squirming uncomfortably in her seat. “I can’t take it,” she said to her friend. “It’s just so oppressive.”
This one requires strength and patience. There’s a light at the end of this black tunnel, and it’s worth the wait.