Nancy Rhodes, artistic director of the Encompass New Opera Theatre Company, which was founded in 1975, described the double bill under the collective title of “Approaching Infinity.”
“The idea grew out of my sense of overwhelm in an uncertain world,” she said in the playbill. “I long for infinity, a boundlessness and connection with nature, anything to balance out what feels so out of balance.”
Ambitious sentiments maybe but Rhodes certainly provided us with thought-provoking drama.
First up was the whimsical opera “The End of a World,” with music by Hans Werner Henze. From the libretto by Comedy of the Absurd writer Wolfgang Hildesheimer, the narrator recounts a strange tale. The Marchesa Montetristo has gathered a group of colorful friends for a party on her man-made island near Venice.
As the night wears on and the Marchesa gives a harpsichord recital, the island begins to crumble and sink. Oblivious to the disintegration around them, the revelers call for an encore and continue to listen intently to the haunting music. Gradually, the island sinks from view and the narrator observes its demise from a distance.
The theme of the piece — a necessary end to a world that won’t change, won’t grow and won’t connect — is not immediately clear. However, what is clearly discernible is the inevitable demise of the self-involved guests who ask questions but do not heed the answers, who twitter trivia amongst themselves, caring not about the real world outside the artificial walls of the palace.
The overall production is engaging and professional. Every character is decked out in a lavish costume with characters ranging from the aristocratic Marchesa to a 1920s-style flapper.
The two-tiered set works very well, with the upper circular stage tilted toward the audience in order to give us a bird’s eye view. The circular platforms were painted mottled shades of blue and this color was also used for the backdrop. Forming the main focal point of the stage was a large wooden moon. The man-size shaped orb was used cunningly throughout the performances. At various intervals, the projectionists cast images of the sea, waves lapping the island, the palazzo crumbling and other timely images with which to support the fabric of the story.
“A Full Moon in March” begins with two attendants dressed in silver coats and white shoes, a look that seems to embrace the eerie atmosphere of Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey 2001”. Artistic Director Rhodes said that the costume designer, Obie winner John Scheffler, avoided obviously Celtic imagery, opting instead for a pan-futuristic look, with a nod to the archetypical costume for the end of the world.
This piece involved fewer cast members, with only the aforementioned attendants, the Queen, her swineherd and a dancer.
The music was composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison in 1977 and the libretto is from the W.B. Yeats’s play of the same name. This piece is august where the other was blithe and requires more concentration on the libretto. Again, Rhodes chose this piece for symbolic reasons.
She described Yeats as a mystic who was married for a time to a woman who channeled spirits. “He was influenced by Celtic legend and tried to understand the opposite forces in the universe,” she said. “It became clear that the play is a blood ritual of cleansing and rebirth, that the Queen is Mother Earth and the Swineherd is all of us, stuck in the muck.”
Rhodes is clearly comfortable with these themes, being an avid reader of physics and metaphysics, myth, legend and ancient writings.
The story revolves around a queen who promises herself to any worthy suitor. A filthy swineherd comes to seduce her and is beheaded. Both main roles are played excellently by mezzo-soprano Desiree Halac and baritone Dominic Inferrera, who infuse the right amount of intensity and urgency into their performances.
The music becomes increasingly dramatic and discordant as the meeting with Queen and swineherd disintegrates into chaos. While the plot line may leave a lot to be desired, it does sharpen the focus on the music, which seems to be in sympathy with the deranged mood of the queen.
In the most striking scene of this opera, dancer Kerry Stichweh takes center stage for a romp with the swineherd’s head. The music is hypnotic.
Composer Harbison wrote, “In Yeat’s astrological-metaphysical system the moon has a special place in Phase 15, a phase of complete and unexplainable beauty, where unity can be achieved and opposites unite.”
It is not quite clear whether the audience appreciated the lofty sentiments behind the production but they certainly understood the value of top-rate performances by singers, dancers and musicians alike.