Opera, TheaterMark Rudio

Certitude and Joy

Opera, TheaterMark Rudio
Pier 7, San Francisco. Photo by Travis Jensen.

Though it's been almost three weeks since I've seen it, Erling Wold's chamber opera Certitude and Joy is still rambling through my consciousness. I haven't written about it in depth partly because I haven't felt I can really do it the justice it deserves- there are only three other operatic/musical experiences I've attended with which I can really compare it to in its visceral, unexpected, and thought-provoking impact: the first time I saw Wozzeck, the premiere of John Adams' El Nino, and The Tristan Project in Los Angeles a few years ago. That's some heady company. Those were all major productions- artistic endeavors put on by large companies and I know it seems absurd to compare them to a small work by a little-known composer making its world premiere in a tiny theater on a shitty street in San Francisco. But it's true.

In his notes about the piece Wold comments that on rereading the text he noticed many threes in the libretto and the score. The opera's libretto consists of three interwoven spiritual experiences: Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac; Lashaun Harris' completed sacrifice/murder of her three children when she threw them into the bay from San Francisco's Pier 7; and Wold's own conflicted attempts to find spiritual reconciliation in a world that holds the first to be an act of admirable faith and the second to be an instance of reprehensible insanity. The genius of Wold's libretto is its ability to successfully and simultaneously create a palpable sense of horror and empathy for both stories, casting doubt about how we as a culture view religious certitude and what is an acceptable source, or definition of, joy.

Heavy stuff, expertly portrayed by three pairs of performers who respectively sing, dance and act each role, sometimes creating jarring contrasts, at others emphasizing a particular theme, trait, or event. The lines between the characters blur, as do the portrayals, and Abraham, Wold and Harris become multi-faceted representations of the same being- or at least a singular manifestation of the search for religious certitude and joy.

To blur the line even more, Wold inserts himself into the show, creating his own meta-commentary, so that suddenly there are two people performing as the same person, while two others are simultaneously doubling him- a fun-house mirror of a soul. It sounds confusing but it was incredibly well-delineated and easy to comprehend.

The singers were Laura Bohn and Jo Vincent Parks. Parks has an impressive baritone and a keen acting ability, but Bohn, who gets to deliver one the greatest extended arias I've ever heard, was simply astonishing.

The actors were Bob Ernst as Wold and Talya Patrick as Harris. Ernst perhaps had the harder assignment, and handled it extremely well as large parts of the libretto call for him to recite lines that fall just shy of delivering a sermon. Harris actually brought tears to my eyes during the courtroom scene, delivering a key line with such perfect timing and skill I gulped hard and still couldn't keep my eyes from tearing. In fact, recalling it now produces a similar effect.

The dancers were Kerry Mehling and Travis Santell Rowland. Rowland doesn't have a dancer's physique, which made his ability and performance all the more impressive. Mehling is a sensual, sinuous presence with the ability to convey myriad emotions through movement.

The direction by Jim Cave added meaningful elements without drawing attention to itself. One superb moment came when Bohn and Patrick mirror one another and extend their hands slowly to touch the other's fingers. Is it a moment meant to portray Harris' schizophrenia? Or is she simply seeing herself from the other side of wherever it is her God sent her in her mind? Or was it meant to evoke Michelangelo's Creation? Pick an interpretation. They all work.

The score was performed on two pianos by the the ZOFO duet of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman. Zimmerman sounded like she had a slightly better grip on its demands than Nakagoshi, but Wold's music- complex yet highly accessible, had me constantly drawn in and wondering what it would sound like fully orchestrated. It turns out some of it has been, and you can hear it here. I've found myself listening to it repeatedly ever since, though it's not quite how I imagined it as I was listening to it for the first time on the pianos. Never has the score of a contemporary opera grabbed me like this one has.

Certitude and Joy ends in sudden darkness, with only the sound of someone gasping for air. It was the perfect conclusion to an absolutely brilliant work. I hope to see it again one day, performed with an orchestra.