At the end of Darkling -- a new opera-cum-multimedia music-theater work previewed in full for the first time by American Opera Projects on Sunday afternoon -- baritone Marcus DeLoach climbs to the rafters of a small, black-box in full Victorian kit, there to sing Lee Hoiby's richly chromatic setting of the Thomas Hardy poem, "The Darkling Thrush." Starting to think about the piece from its conclusion might seem peculiar, were it not for the fact that Darkling is in some sense as much a musical expansion of its final number as the book-length poem by Anna Rabinowitz on which this opera is based was built upon a skeleton provided by Hardy's poem.
Rabinowitz's book deals in fragmentary memories of family known and unknown -- specifically a Jewish family sundered by Nazi politics, reconstructed via letters found in a shoebox. Her poem is constructed as an acrostic, the first letter of each line combining to render Hardy's poem. Likewise, Stefan Weisman's dark, elusive score is an explosion of themes and motives extracted from the Hoiby song, stretched into an 80-minute progression of solo and ensemble numbers performed by a quartet of opera singers and a string quartet -- punctuated by interludes spoken by the poet and actors, as well as pre-recorded soundscapes by Tom Hamilton.
Apart from DeLoach's song, the whole of the work takes place within the boundaries of a box defined by translucent scrims, affording the audience an access held at some slight remove. Projected texts and manuscripts illuminate the walls of the enclosure; singers and dancers move within, presenting a non-narrative series of images describing Jewish life in Europe before and during the war, as well as the strained relations between those who escaped to America (including Rabinowitz's parents) and those who remained behind.
Director Michael Comlish, who conceived the dramatization of Rabinowitz's poem, intersperses scenes of operatic lyricism and gravitas with quirky, theatrical interludes -- one early scene in particular, which mingled black boots, bustiers and Orthodox garb with oblique blocking and abrupt sound effects, suggested a Richard Foreman-steered production of Cabaret. Strikingly kinetic enactments of old photographs and silent films evoke time and place.
Weisman's score is likewise shot through with an old-world melancholy, accentuated by Flux Quartet leader Tom Chiu's keening violin lines. The composer took full advantage of his operatic principals -- soprano Jody Scheinbaum, mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn, tenor Jon Garrison and bass-baritone Mark Uhlemann -- each of whom was afforded an opportunity to stand out. Chinn and Uhlemann commanded distinctive, replendent instruments. Scheinbaum, whose voice was smaller, projected with a winning charm and physical agility. Garrison's impassioned solo number, performed in beard and gown, summoned thoughts of Halévy's tortured Elezar.
But Darkling is a work of busy ensemble interaction, and non-singing actors played as great a role as the vocalists -- none more so than Sid Williams, who at one point transformed in the blink of an eye from a smiling, waving Fiorello LaGuardia into a Nazi mouthpiece who reported the final solution in the terminology of an art critic, even as the action onstage artfully rendered the unthinkable.
Since this afternoon's performance was a preview, my thoughts should be read as reflection rather than review. But really, productions like this remind you that all too much light is cast upon the Met and City Opera -- and even San Francisco and Houston -- to define what new opera is, or might be. Let Darkling serve as a reminder that opera can also be what and where it is found. This is a profound, provocative piece of musical theater -- one that I hope will occasion a great many opera lovers to stray from habitual paths. As specific as the context of Darkling may be, its message is ultimately universal.
Darkling runs at the East 13th Theatre in New York City through March 18.