The Lord of the Cries is Corigliano’s new thriller which delivers a punch at Santa Fe Opera

United StatesUnited States John Corigliano, The Lord of Cries: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Santa Fe Opera / Johannes Debus (conductor). Crosby Theater, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 11.8.2021. (HS)

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Dionysus), Leah Brzyski (Agave), Megan Moore
(Ino) and Rachel Blaustein (Autonoe) (c) Curtis Brown

Director – James Darrah
Libretto – Mark Adamo
Sets – Adam Rigg
Costumes – Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko
Lighting – Pablo Santiago
Projection – Adam Larsen
Sound – Mark Grey

Lucy Harker – Kathryn Henry
Dionysus – Anthony Roth Costanzo
Jonathon Harker – David Portillo
John Seward – Jarrett Ott
Van Helsing – Matt Boehler
Correspondent – Kevin Burdette (spoken)
Agave – Leah Brzyski
Autonoe – Rachel Blaustein
Ino – Megan Moore
Captain – Robert Stahley

In Santa Fe Opera’s lurid new The Lord of Cries, in which Dracula wreaks havoc on Victorian London, there is a notable lack of biting of necks, wooden stakes through the heart or crosses for protection. Psychology, not vampire lore, drives this opera: the Greek god Dionysus inhabits the body of the Transylvanian count to teach humans that they repress his embrace of worldly passions at their peril.

Composer John Corigliano’s extravagant music makes for a magnificent thrill ride. Mark Adamo, Corigliano’s spouse and a fine composer in his own right, has been working on the libretto for a decade, ever since he saw possibilities in making Dionysus, as portrayed in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the moral underpinning of the Dracula stories.

In this take, Dionysus inhabits the body of Count Dracula and outwits London about as craftily as he did Euripedes’ Thebes. It requires some doing on his part, but terror and chaos ensue, forcing us to rethink our notions of morality.

The 11 August performance, the fourth since the premiere, brimmed with confidence. Despite relatively wan production values and some awkward pacing in the exposition-heavy first act (which lasted nearly an hour and a half and ended with disturbing abruptness), Act II came together with one powerful scene after another and delivered big payoffs.

Corigliano makes creative use of traditional opera elements – arias, duets, a mad scene, a consternation scene worthy of Rossini, plenty of orchestral color and smart use of musical gestures that develop into full-sized themes.

The title character seldom ends a musical line on the expected note, often landing exactly a half step off. Three women in thrall to the Lord of Cries revel in pungent dissonance, while rich Romantic harmonies and actual melodies create other scenes of musical plushness that can still contain an undercurrent of unease.

There are many delicious moments: when the orchestra responds to a character’s mention of birds with a flutter of flutes, a growl of low brass under a menacing vocal phrase or a full-blown fanfare when Dionysus appears in full regalia.

Anthony Ross Costanzo’s countertenor range and vocal exoticism make him a perfect choice for the title role, and it seems to have inspired some of Corigliano’s most striking music. The singer’s ability to portray seductive androgyny works even more effectively here than in his tour-de-force recently as Akhnaten (in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of the Philip Glass opera), and he gets to look fabulous in costume designer Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko’s creations.

Costanzo gets the opera’s opening scene, alone, establishing the character’s intentions with a cappella phrases that blossom into a fine aria. He presents different personalities to the several individuals who are his targets. Early on, we see Jonathan Harker, deranged, at the insane asylum owned and run by John Seward, his friend since childhood. Sent to Transylvania to head off Dracula’s claim on the abbey, Harker returns unhinged by Dracula’s (and his three women accomplices’) attempts to seduce him.

There is also a riveting scene – part seduction and part terror – with Lucy (Harker’s wife) and Dracula, who gradually convinces her to give in to her frustrations and desires. These are not for her husband.

Soprano Kathryn Henry was plucked from the roster of the company’s young singers to sing Lucy when, only a few weeks before the premiere, Susanna Phillips dropped out. There were moments when one missed Phillips’ ability to sing soft and high, but Henry delivered the music effectively, with purity and richness of tone.

Another seduction scene of sorts involves Costanzo and baritone Jarrett Ott as Seward, the asylum owner who believes he is doing God’s work by, first, repressing desire to sin (including his own lust for Lucy). He chooses to battle Dracula at every turn, and when he thinks he has slain the beast it does not end well for him. Vocally, Ott handled the high tessitura of the role with aplomb and conveyed a sinister combination of pompousness and torment.

As Jonathon Harker, tenor David Portillo went completely to melodrama, delivering the music with an intensity that made it riveting. Matt Boehler used his sturdy bass and height to make Van Helsing the only character who sees the whole picture clearly, even if no one wants to take his advice.

As the women in thrall to Dracula, coloratura soprano Leah Brzyski, lyric soprano Rachel Blaustein and mezzo-soprano Megan Moore created a witchy trio who brought their ensembles to scary life and acted as a counterpoint to the repressed and increasingly terrified citizens around Carfax.

High marks, too, to conductor Johannes Debus, music director of Canadian Opera. He kept the music moving in the right direction, brought out the colorful elements with precision and, with the aid of deft amplification of the voices, struck balances that made words consistently understandable. Mark Grey, who has been John Adams’ sound man for decades, left the audiences no need of back-of-the-seat titles, without making the miking obvious.

This is Corigliano’s first opera since The Ghosts of Versailles debuted thirty years ago. It has been a long wait, but the 83-year-old composer still has the goods. Audiences have been enthusiastic, carried along by exciting music, an impressive cast and a finish that delivers a punch.

Harvey Steiman

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