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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Opera Review: The Pit and the Piano

On Site Opera and the Crypt Sessions unearth The Tell-Tale Heart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hanging on a heartbeat: Elizabeth Pojanowski performs The Tell-Tale Heart 
by Gregg Kallor (center) with cellist Joshua Roman. Photo by Andrew Ousley.
There's nothing scarier than Edgar Allen Poe.

The writer and poet, who grew up in the Bronx and called New York home for much of his life is responsible for setting the template for the modern horror story, for inventing the detective tale, and for using simple words to give nightmares to millions of readers, this writer included. You can keep your tentacles, your chest-bursting aliens, your psychopaths wielding baseball bats bound with barbed wire: Poe's stories cut right to the heart of what terrifies us, our own inner demons and darkest moments laid bare for all to see.

Poe's New York roots and gift for terror made it entirely appropriate that the Crypt Sessions, that Harlem series of chamber performances that take place deep in the bowels of the Church of the Intercession (which looms, Sphinx-like above the intersection of 155th and Broadway) chose to end its 2016 season and celebrate Halloween with the debut of The Tell-Tale Heart, the world premiere performances of a new monodrama by composer Gregg Kallor.

The opera was prefaced by two instrumental compositions by Mr. Kallor. First, he played Where You Are a movement from a larger cycle of works for solo piano. It featured complex rhythms, dextrous melodic lines and casual displays of technical skill. Second was Undercurrent, a four-movement cello sonata featuring Joshua Roman as musical collaborator. This work started simply, as a friendly dialogue between the instruments. It grew more heated, with pianist and cellist interrupting, arguing and finally trying to express themselves simultaneously with little regard for what the other was saying. In other words, it was a classic portrayal of a conversation between two New Yorkers.

These performances (on Wednesday and Friday of last wee) marked the first collaboration between The Crypt Sessions and On Site Opera, the innovative guerrilla opera company that has staged some pretty interesting shows in unlikely New York locations. Here, director Sarah Meyers added strategic lighting to the dark vaults of the crypt, along with a minimal acting surface and a simple chair. That, plus the accompaniment of Mr. Kallor and Mr. Roman was enough to create the sheer psychological terror of Poe's tale, as sung by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Pojanowski.

Mr. Kallor's setting is faithful to the Poe text, itself a short story told from the first person. It made for effective monodrama, as Ms. Pojanowski revealed her character's unhealthy psyche and obsession with the milky, blue "vulture-eye" of her elderly lodger, an obsession that leads her to murder and dismember the old man and hide the body beneath the floorboards. All this gruesome action takes place in retrospect, driven forward by piano and cello and building to a series of climaxes that increased in power and dramatic intensity. The lights slowly shifted from purple to blood-red, adding to the effect and assault iupon the senses.

The cumulative effect of Mr. Kallor's opera was almost too intense. As the work continued, fearsome tendrils of sound rose from the piano and Mr. Roman's strings, reaching into the listener's mind to disquieting effect. As the packed house sat and listened, one could not help think of the weight of the earth around the stone crypt and wonder if the spirits of those interred at this site might be listening, perhaps wondering at the opera as it climbed its steady stairway of sound. The finale, where Ms. Pojanowski confessed her crime, knocking her chair over as she did so, had a harrowing effect, followed by a swift cut to black and a last repetition of the "heartbeat" on the low keys of the piano.

However, the surrender and arrest of the mezzo-soprano was not the end of the evening. The musicians agreed to play composer Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel, a slow and ethereal work built around deceptively simple melodic ideas. This bare-bones music served as the perfect calmative following the horror of The Tell-Tale Heart, bringing the audience's own pulses back to normal and presumably serving to quiet the phantoms who may have been attending the opera on this night. 

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