Can you have an opera without drama? “The Face” certainly tries. Donald Crockett's new opera, given its East Coast premiere on Saturday by the Firebird Ensemble, concerns a once-famous poet, Raphael, who makes a classic deal with the devil in the form of a movie reenacting his life and lost love, sending him into a destructive spiral of memory and self-recrimination. That's the synopsis that was printed in the program, and repeated by the California-based composer in introducing the performance, but whether it could have been gleaned from the piece itself is arguable. Most operas boil down their plots; “The Face” boils its away completely.
Saturday's performance, at the Boston Conservatory Theater, was, to be sure, only a concert presentation (the world premiere performances, Aug. 25-28 in California, were fully staged) but it was hard to imagine any staging that could mine the story's intricacies from the elliptical base material. The dense poetic language of David St. John's libretto, adapted from his own verse novella, is almost all imagery, esoteric impressions of events rather than the events themselves. Crockett's music, too, a fluent, gently spiced tonality somewhere between neo-Romanticism and musical theater, filled each of the opera's 11 scenes with fixed moods more than fluid action.
And many of the moods bled into one another — pacing and textures gravitated toward a moderate lyricism, and what distinctive melodic material there was tended to repeat rather than transform in any dramatic way. None of the characters — Raphael; Cybele, the actress cast as Marina, the poet's now-dead wife; Infanta, the film's conniving director; or Memphis, an explicitly Mephistophelian manipulator — were all that differentiated from each other in linguistic style or musical affect.
The drawbacks were all the more frustrating given the talent on display. Kate Vincent, Firebird's artistic director, took on the role of producer for the project, assembling an enviable team. (Paul Desveaux's design and Yano Iatrides's direction were jettisoned for this performance, but Hunter Wells's costumes and Anton Nadler's film elements remained.) Gil Rose conducted the eight-player orchestra — members of the Firebird Ensemble plus guests — and their musical care and flair were unimpeachable.
As Raphael, tenor Daniel Norman gave creditable account of a marathon part, long and linguistically tricky: a finely-honed sound, an energetic attention to the twisty diction, a reserve of clarion power for more fraught poetic flights. Janna Baty, as Infanta, found a neat intersection of Broadway brass and the dark richness of opera's long list of mezzo-soprano antagonists. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza was all smooth ingratiation as Memphis, the ease with which he worked the music's angles a shorthand for seductive power. Jane Sheldon's Cybele was the weakest — her straight-tone soprano stayed monochromatic in its effort to project. But she was never less than musically solid, and, doubling as Marina in the projected films that represent Raphael's memories of her, provided the closest thing the opera got to a fully-rounded character.
And, to be fair, Cybele was little more than a cipher, a placeholder for a relationship that neither words nor music ever really developed; Baty and Meglioranza had at least a single dimension of caricature to work with, but Sheldon's character was denied even that. It was characteristic that where “The Face” showed a hint of spark — a Memphis-led quartet cataloging a Hollywood-Bosch vision of hell, or Raphael's climactic dark-night-of-the-soul aria — it resulted from the music glancing off particularly exotic language, rather than any sudden dramatic impetus or development. It wasn't anywhere near enough fuel to get the opera from a sketched-up concept to something with theatrical life of its own. “The Face” remained a blank mask.