In art, the urge to remake and remodel the canon can seem nearly as strong as the urge to create in the first place. Confronted with an “Orlando” set at Cape Canaveral or an all-female “Ghostbusters,” we’re meant to ponder not just what makes a work essential, but also how much a new vision has to retain to preserve a connection and make its point?
“Beowulf,” a chamber opera by the composer Hannah Lash, seems at first glance to participate in this exercise. Yet the new work, which Guerilla Opera presented in its world premiere at the Boston Conservatory on Friday, conveys only the bare essence of its model: a hero, a mother, a monster to be fought.
Dealing in archetypes is not new for Lash, whose earlier “Blood Rose” used the “Beauty and the Beast” legend as a lens to focus and examine issues of violation, vengeance, and reconciliation. “Beowulf,” likewise, recasts the hero’s quest as a struggle against mortality and fear, with an ending that leaves much in question.
Lash’s Beowulf is a physician haunted by flashbacks to a wartime instance when he was unable to save an injured child, even as he grapples in the present with his mother’s failing health. The monster is time, compounded by fear of helplessness.
The music, for an unorthodox mix of clarinet, saxophone, violin, and percussion, conveys mood and messsage in vivid strokes. Concise phrases circle, collide, and smudge, predicting or echoing what the vocalists are singing. Lash’s idiom, based in tonality but not tethered by it, hints at resolutions that rarely come.
Occasionally the music grows literal, imitating mortar fire and thunder as well as trivial details like buzzers and pagers. Mostly Lash insinuates rather than illustrating. Loose textures with wide-open spaces convey fraying connections; ensemble bonds grow thickest when accompanying memories of security and assurance. The vibraphone conveys vital details: it’s eerie and rootless in Beowulf’s flashbacks, steely and regular to denote a mother imprisoned by physical decline, agitated and jumpy when fear escalates and cognition declines.
All of this was conveyed emphatically and economically, according to Guerilla custom. In the title role, the baritone Brian Church sang handsomely and acted compassionately. The soprano Aliana de la Guardia, the Mother, delivered a performance of quiet nuance and palpable gravity. Brendan P. Buckley, a tenor, did fine work in the smaller role of the Nurse.
They worked in just a few square feet of floor space, surrounded on three sides by audience members on risers: a setting conceived by director Andrew Eggert and realized by designer Julia Noulin-Mérat, meant to suggest an operating theater. Props were few and basic, the stark tableau activated and enhanced by Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting.
Behind a sheer curtain, clarinetist Amy Advocat, saxophonist Philipp A. Stäudlin, percussionist Mike Williams, and violinist Lilit Hartunian played with passion and assurance. That Advocat and Stäudlin served in one scene as dramatic extras, while Hartunian and Williams handled Lash’s most tender music, underlined this fiesty company’s resourcefulness and pluck.
GUERILLA OPERA: Beowulf
At Zack Box Theater, Boston Conservatory, May 20 (repeats May 22, 27, 28)Steve Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.