Opera turns real emotion into stylized fiction, but then, in performance, makes its fictions corporeally real. In that regard, Per Bloland’s “Pedr Solis,” given its premiere staging on Friday by Guerilla Opera, hit a sweet spot. The piece elaborately (and, sometimes, perplexingly) bleeds literary invention into its posited actuality, the whole thing — as usual with Guerilla Opera — realized with energy and commitment.
The plot’s provenance goes back to Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century drama “Life Is a Dream,” which, three centuries later, Austrian dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal loosely adapted into his play “The Tower.” The central conflict remained: a prince, imprisoned at birth after it is prophesied that he will lead a rebellion, finally meeting his kingly father. Bloland and librettist Paul Schick transferred the tale to Norway, circa 1970, and the life of the obscure writer Pedr Solis (obscurity so thorough that Solis has no existence outside of Bloland’s works). The son is one of Solis’s characters; the threat is of the novelist losing control of his own book. That is a lot of translation to get lost in; “Pedr Solis,” more often than not, cultivated the disorientation.
The singers, all Guerilla Opera familiars, were uniformly estimable. As the Doctor caring for Pedr Solis’s imprisoned son, mezzo-soprano Carrie Cheron filled a limited dramatic bill with fine vehemence. Baritone Brian Church was vocally clear and physically crafty as Pedr Solis, shifting with the power dynamic from shambling to severe. Countertenor Doug Dodson, as Ignis, the son, moved between petulantly feral and affectingly lyrical. (A long aria — unaccompanied except for Dodson occasionally singing into a snare drum, rasping in synergy — was a vivid meditation.) Best of all was soprano (and Guerilla general manager) Aliana de la Guardia as Adrian, Ignis’s Machiavellian warden, a performance both bold and controlled, flamboyantly subtle.
Bloland’s is music of deliberate and often compelling abrasion; the four-player ensemble (clarinetist Amy Advocat, saxophonist Kent O’Doherty, violinist Gabriela Diaz, and, on percussion, Guerilla Opera co-artistic director Mike Williams) was often at extremes, of range, dynamic, tone. Electronics (controlled by Alfonso Peduto) ground away at the texture.
But the texture didn’t always privilege the text. (One of the opera’s conceits, assigning a Greek-chorus role to Loki, the Norse pantheon’s trickster — played by all the singers at various times — emerged as a keening friction of high voices: arresting sound, impenetrable words.) And even when the text-setting was clear, or when, in a couple of the opera’s seven scenes, the dialogue was simply spoken, Schick’s libretto remained dense and Delphic.
Laine Rettmer’s stage direction balanced that abstruseness with doubled-down physicality, building tension with oblique, process-driven counterpoints: repeated, ritualized violence; dressing and undressing; building and demolition (large wooden blocks were constantly assembled and disassembled, a mirror of authorship). It reinforced the emphasis on mood, a mood not unlike a kind of Scandinavian art house cinema contemporaneous with the 1970s setting. At its best, the opera shared those films’ intense opacity; even when it seemed simply obscure, the production still toiled to project latent menace. In “Pedr Solis,” writing is a dangerous rite.
Per Bloland: “Pedr Solis”
Presented by Guerilla Opera; Laine Rettmer, stage director; Mike Williams and Rudolf Rojahn, artistic directors
At: Zack Box Theater, Boston Conservatory, Friday
(repeats May 21, 22, 23)
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.