An Operatic Sequel to the Bible, ‘REV. 23’ Makes Its World Premiere in Boston
By Doug Hall, Contributing Writer, September 22, 2017
Biblical references are not usually a librettist’s guide to a narrative of cutting-edge inventive modern opera. But in premiering REV. 23, creator and librettist Cerise Jacobs, whose Ouroboros trilogy produced last September, was “the most ambitious opera undertaking Boston has ever seen” (Berkshire Fine Arts), wants to add an additional revelation in lyrics and drama to St. John the Divine’s (the putative author) first 22 chapters of the Book of Revelation. Ms. Jacob’s satirical take in REV. 23 is bolstered by an expectant bold and atmospheric musical composition provided by Julian Wachner, an acclaimed conductor, composer and keyboard artist, and director of Music and the Arts at New York’s historic Trinity Wall Street. Wachner was recently named one of NYC’s “10 Imagination-Grabbing, Trailblazing artists” by WQXR, so the mood is set for a contemporary opera that Cerise conceives as “a comic addition to the Book of Revelation.”
Following a cutting-edge pattern of originality, Jacob’s REV. 23 is not based on a previously existing source. Instead, the concept of adding an additional chapter to such a biblical historical standard as the Book of Revelation, came to her in the context of reacting against the inevitable “dark” tragedy that fills most famous operas from Tosca to Madame Butterfly. Ms. Jacob reflected on her musings, “most contemporary operas today are so filled with angst and we’re constantly explaining what’s going on in our heads — I want to break out of our heads and have fun, and entertainment and excitement – I hope that’s what REV. 23 will do.”
The high-energy REV. 23 composer Julian Wachner, whose first opera Evangeline Revisited (2010) which was described as “colorful and assured” by the Boston Globe, reflects on the current libretto and sees a dynamic borrowing of a variety of religious traditions, “It’s interesting when you take a newly written libretto that itself is sort of borrowing from these other traditions – mainly Greco-Roman pagan tradition and then a Judeo-Christian biblical message – and putting these two together.” He reaches for an analogy with a current reference, “It’s like there’s (cartoon) tune town, and Disney characters are hanging out with the Warner Brother’s cartoon characters.” Wachner’s imagination abounds as he further articulates his analogy of Disney’s Dumbo flying around and bumping into Warner Brother’s Bugs Bunny. Such a colliding of characters is in fact not far from the actual plot interaction occurring in REV. 23, with biblical Lucifer joining Greek mythological god Hades to conspire, “like guerilla fighters” to break out of hell and then to overthrow this new paradise that has “come upon the earth.”
This stellar cast steps into roles that are larger than life. Beyond religious context, these characters are the biblical and mythological “household names” we all know and with whom we have associations — Lucifer, Hades, Persephone, Adam and Eve, Archangel Michael, as well as the Chinese military general and author of ancient The Art of War, Sun Tzu — making a top 10 list in this mixing of world faiths and ideologies. With a modernist twist, all the lead singers in these roles get a “dream come true” opportunity to play out in operatic voice and dramatic pose these larger-than-life characters, imbuing them with human traits of love, jealousy, revenge and the age-old thirst for power and conquest. As put more directly by Zane Pihlstron (REV. 23‘s costume and set designer), you’re having interaction with characters “you think you know, but know nothing about in the end” as they commit all the human errors of emotion in their individual quests.
The all-star cast assembled for REV. 23 includes Michael Mayes, having received wide acclaim for his performance in the Washington National Opera’s revival of Dead Man Walking, with accolades of “intense, tortured and laudably dramatic performance”(Washington Post), is joined by Vale Rideout in the role of Hades, a “bright, clear tenor” (Opera News), with his significant other portrayed by Colleen Daly, who proved a “confident, dramatic Persephone” (Washington Post) when she sang the REV. 23 aria “Blood Rubies” with composer Julian Wachner and the Washington Chorus earlier this year. Michael Maniaci, who created the role of Xiao Qing in the Ouroboros Trilogy’s Madame White Snake, sings the countertenor role of the Archangel Michael, while “remarkable young American tenor” (New York Observer) Jonathan Blalock and “never less than intensely present” (Parterre Box) mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen portray the new Adam and Eve. Bass Matt Anchel’s “strong, crisp and dulcet” voice (Opera News) gives life to the co-conspirator, Sun Tze.
This world premiere of REV. 23 takes place on September 29 and plays through October 1 at Boston’s John Hancock Hall, as the centerpiece and opening production of the first Boston New Music Festival hosted by Juventas New Music. These performances also mark an initial foray for the newly reconfigured production company White Snake Projects, headed by Boston producer Georgina Lyman with Jacobs as Executive Producer.
To view a video of rehearsals and interview features click here.
Cover: (l. to r.) Colleen Daly (as “Persephone”) and Vale Rideout (as “Hades”) in rehearsal for ‘Rev. 23;’ photo:Kathy Wittman / Ball Square Films.