Review: Long Beach Opera’s Romance of the Rose is a triumph
In a brief program note for The Romance of the Rose, which premiered at the Long Beach Opera over the weekend, composer Kate Soper suggests that the opera is “a good vessel for the chaotic complexity of human existence in general.” That’s what love is like, she says. And certainly her endearingly chaotic but deeply thought-out new opera.
“The Romance of the Rose” is a wild jumble of love talk about – again in Soper’s words – “gender, astrology, fashion, war, law, God, the nature of language and the concept of free will”. The starting point and obsession was the 13thth Century, the old French epic “Le Roman de la Rose” which questions the meaning of love, along with everything else under a sun that is still believed to revolve around the earth. Its culmination, in its own brilliant literary libretto, accompanied by its brilliant, dizzying blend of musical elements, is a startling commentary on a protagonist who falls head over heels in love with a rose.
Coupled with a terrific performance by Long Beach Opera, which has more than one star in its wake, San Pedro’s run-down Warner Grand Theater became the unlikely setting for a double operatic triumph.
The first triumph was, of course, that of Soper. For a dozen years she has been writing provocative musical theater that does not fit into any genre and certainly does not fit into the current fashion trend of conventional, narrative modern opera. Instead, it seeks out the other places in our psyches that are all too easily ignored.
The second triumph is for the Long Beach Opera. A year ago, the company was struggling with scandals and disturbing allegations, and it seemed like it was lost. What LBO was able to salvage in an abbreviated season proved extraordinary, but not enough to predict the future. The premiere of The Romance of the Rose kicks off the company’s first full season under the artistic direction of James Darrah, who also directed. LBO is back, reinventing not only opera but itself.
Leaving the theater dazed by a new opera – operating simultaneously on several inverted levels, fueled by non-stop invention – is one thing. Still processing where the humor ends and meaning begins, even after a period of contemplation, is another, much rarer and more valuable thing.
So what exactly is The Romance of the Rose? There is no easy answer.
In “Le Roman de la Rose” a lover pursues a beautiful woman in an enchanted garden. He is pierced by an arrow from the bow of the god of love, causing his senses to be overwhelmed by a rose. The lover then finds himself in the company of allegorical figures – including danger, slander, fear, honesty, pity, jealousy, reason, faux pas and enforced abstinence – who project their competing attitudes and approaches onto the very nature of love.
The authors of ‘Le Roman de la Rose’, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, worked independently 45 years apart and in different styles to write the two parts of the poem. Soper continues the additions in her beautifully intricate libretto, with additional texts by Shakespeare, Tennyson and Christina Rossetti. Soper has cast her net incredibly wide, describing other influences that go back to Ovid, including ‘The Many Ailments of Clover’ from the 1953 US Department of Agriculture Yearbook. She further spices the libretto with her own questioning answers. Each question leads to the next.
The narrator of the poem becomes a dreamer who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies. Wanting audience participation, he pulls a supposedly unsuspecting person out of the auditorium: the lover who turns Soper into a woman and a mezzo-soprano who discovers she has a great voice. From the original poem survive the God of Love, Lady of Reason, Shame, Idleness, and Pleasure. Each becomes a flamboyant operatic figure going about their own updated allegorical business in the Dream Garden.
This garden in this production (designed by Prairie T. Trivuth) is a modern, minimalist contemporary setting that is versatile enough to be temporarily transformed into a bar when needed. Darrah’s production is relatively straight forward, avoiding the use of video or anything extraneous. It relies on imperturbably singing actors, Molly Irelan’s imaginative costumes and Soper’s eclectic score create a jubilant excess of madness.
Soper created The Dreamer for Lucas Steele, a well-known Broadway performer (“Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812”), and he excels in his debut operatic role. Steele plays a welcome note and transports us into a dream world of ‘flimsy double meaning’ and ‘crafty lies’ where Henry Purcell and Stephen Sondheim walk hand in hand musically, along with screaming pop and all manner of electronic distortion and enhancement. Soper isn’t the first to bridge the dots between early music and today, but she does so here with an underlying analytical integrity that is both musically exciting and theatrically fulfilling.
The Lover is a character in Soper’s Alice in Wonderland who is confronted with all the mad complexities of modern love. Tivoli Treloar, a 21-year-old UCLA opera student inhabits the stage like a veteran in her extraordinary first professional leading role. She commands an epic part and exudes a confidence achieved through vocals, operatic arias and extended avant-garde vocal practices. The premiere of “Rose” was on Saturday night. Rather than give the singers the few days of rest their voices need, the second performance less than 24 hours later was a matinee. I attended that matinee and Treloar’s voice remained fresh and bright.
Soper’s garden would have amazed Kafka. Anna Schubert, the stiff and correct Lady Reason, skeptical about everything that imaginative love offers, falls in love with the lover and loses her mind. A biting, angry Shame is sung by Laurel Irene, the spectacular star of Soper’s short opera Voices From the Killing Jar presented by Long Beach Opera 2021. Phillip Bullock, a baritone with a distinctive falsetto, presented the god of love as an evil genius orchestrating the whole thing for his own amusement. Idleness (Tiffany Townsend) and Pleasure (Bernardo Bermudez) entertain as lovable, self-absorbed lounge singers.
That simplifies things enormously. Soper’s poetic and philosophical references mix in abundance, and much of it passes so quickly and so strangely that you wonder if you heard correctly. Amidst this wealth of thought, Soper, who takes nothing for granted, even inserts amusing asides about the nature of the musical forms she employs. The dazzling nine-piece ensemble in the Graben, enthusiastically led by Christopher Rountree, is a multicolored sound garden in its own right. Instruments support, accompany and even stalk the singers by doubling their lines. Meanwhile, live electronics color or distort anything they touch acoustically, often bestowing magical powers of transformation on performers.
The actual opera ends with a wondrous epilogue. Looking in the mirror, the lover embodies an Isolde-like understanding of love as fable and reality, as sleep and wakefulness, as capable of clarity and disguise. The others warn her that wherever you look, your illusion is looking too. At her greatest, Treloar embodied an enlightenment that flowed through the voice and body as if directing the universe. Then it went into white noise, the all-encompassing sound that contains all frequencies.
Soper’s only misstep is not trusting this wonderful and mysterious ending, leaving the opera in a state of heightened awareness. Instead, she tacks on a second epilogue, this spoken and fleeting one, which brings us back to everyday reality with a cliche awakening. We don’t need a rude awakening reminder; They are already waiting for us when leaving the theater.
“The Romance of the Rose”
Where: Warner Grand Theater, 478 6thth St., San Pedro
If: Saturday, 7:30 p.m
Duration: 2 hours and 40 minutes including a break.
Contact: longbeachopera.org or (562) 470-7464
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-02-22/review-kate-sopers-romance-of-the-rose-opera-long-beach-opera Review: Long Beach Opera’s Romance of the Rose is a triumph