It starts with a bang. Greek god Dionysus reminds us of the havoc he wreaked on his native Thebes when that city’s king, Pentheus, refused to recognize his divinity. Now he’s threatening Victorian London with similar violence if it doesn’t acknowledge his power. John Corigliano’s “The Lord of Cries” had its East Coast premiere from Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Odyssey Opera Saturday evening at Jordan Hall, and though its mash-up of Euripides’s “The Bacchae” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is strained at times, the work is still a psychological thriller, particularly with superstar countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role.
The impulse for “The Lord of Cries” came from Corigliano’s spouse, Mark Adamo, who saw resemblances between Euripides’s play and Stoker’s novel. Adamo wrote the libretto and prevailed on Corigliano to compose an opera, his first since “The Ghosts of Versailles” for the Metropolitan Opera in 1991. Santa Fe Opera provided the commission and premiered the work in July 2021.
For all that his mapping of “Dracula” on “The Bacchae” is ingenious, Adamo often goes his own way. In the Pentheus role of repressive ruler is Dr. John Seward, a kindly presence in Stoker’s novel but here the de facto mayor of London. Seward, who likes to quote Julian of Norwich, owns Carfax Abbey as well as Carfax Asylum; when Dionysus lays claim to the abbey, arguing that in ancient times the ground was his moonlit glade, Seward tells him his worship has no place in London.
Seward himself, however, worships Lucy Harker, the wife of his best friend, Jonathan Harker. Lucy and Jonathan, we learn, married because they thought they should; Lucy really wanted to wed Seward. When Harker returns from Transylvania permanently insane, Lucy’s plight worsens. Finally she gives way to Dionysus’s plea to “ask me in.” He’s the Prince of Night but also, it turns out, the Prince of Nightmares, for when a love-crazed Seward goes to the moonlit glade to destroy Dionysus, he kills Lucy instead. The message, we’re not surprised to learn, is that what lurks without really lurks within.
Corigliano sets all this in queasy vocal lines that hesitate to resolve and an orchestration that coils around the singers and affords them plenty of room. There are exquisite touches like the flute solo that accompanies the description of worship in that moonlit glade, and the slow-motion timpani funeral march for Seward’s epiphany. When the orchestra does break out, it does so in hysterics of pounding timpani, discordant percussion, and whooping brass. The ritual chorus and sacred march representing the earthquake that destroys the abbey build to a frenzy that’s both cacophonous and sublime.
Santa Fe Opera offered a fully staged production of “The Lord of Cries”; BMOP and Odyssey gave us a concert version, with seven of the 10 singers repeating their Santa Fe performances. David Portillo appearing barefoot as the mad Jonathan Harker was a nice touch; so was the way Dionysus’s three “odd sisters” fleetingly caressed him when he entered to confront Seward. The music stands set before the singers were low; the singers mostly ignored them and sang to the audience or to each other.
The action of the opera revolves around Dionysus, Lucy, and Seward. Corigliano wrote the role of Dionysus for Costanzo, and it’s easy to see why. There’s certainly “something girlish in his dress, something savage in his walk, something lupine in his stare.” His diction Saturday was exemplary, and his countertenor, full-bodied even in the highest register, embraced the idea of the character as both male and female. Like the god of Euripides’s play, Costanzo’s Dionysus is ruthless, not divine so much as necessary.
Soprano Kathryn Henry’s Lucy was silvery steel, with ample power and resonance and barely a hint of shrillness at the top. She even made weaker couplets like “Lucy is as Lucy does / Lucy tries her hardest” sound plausible. Jarrett Ott was an earnest Seward with an engaging baritone; it’s not his fault that the character is two-dimensional.
Jonathan Harker does little more than wail, and Portillo did that well. Matt Boehler as voice-of-reason Abraham van Helsing, Matthew DiBattista as a ship captain, and Will Ferguson in a speaking role as a newspaper correspondent were all excellent. Even better were Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein, and Felicia Gavilanes as the three sisters, eerie and prophetic in their amalgamation of Dracula’s vampire women and Euripides’s crazed maenads.
Gil Rose and the BMOP/Odyssey orchestra and chorus did full justice to the pathos, violence, and sly humor of Corigliano’s writing; the percussion effects were particularly crystalline. Kudos to all concerned for asking this opera in.
THE LORD OF CRIES
Libretto by Mark Adamo. Music by John Corigliano. Presented by BMOP in partnership with Odyssey Opera.
At Jordan Hall, Saturday, Nov. 19
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.