To sprawl, spread, and swell is the nature of mythology. No wonder, then, that Cerise Lim Jacobs’s 2005 birthday present idea for her husband — a song cycle based on an ancient Chinese myth about love between an immortal and a human — could not be contained in its natal skin for long. The final incarnation of that project, 11 years in the making, took over the Cutler Majestic Theatre all day on Saturday. “Ouroboros,” a cycle of three mystic operas (“Naga,” “Madame White Snake,” and “Gilgamesh”) by three profoundly distinct composers, is an enchanted exploration of the eternal mysteries humanity has always turned to mythology to explain: love, loss, hubris, mortality.
Bostonians and new music enthusiasts may have been familiar with one of the three offerings, all of which have libretti by Jacobs. Zhou Long’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Madame White Snake,” which premiered here in 2010, was performed second on Saturday. The cycle can be started at any point but must go in the same direction. Jacobs’s program note on the reincarnation of mortal characters between operas ignores the chronology, giving the impression that all the events are at once cyclical and simultaneous, as in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The loves, betrayals, births and rebirths are written into history before they happen.
Madame White Snake, the subject of the original legend, appears in each opera. Stacey Tappan, playing a recently reborn White Snake in “Naga,” was cool and exacting as a crescent moon in her long beaded sheath and fang-shaped headpiece. She wheeled through Queen of the Night-esque coloratura fireworks in a pining Act I aria, and pulled the tides back to sweetly plead for her freedom in the final scene.
Susannah Biller in “Madame White Snake” came out with her character reincarnated as human, and her harvest-moon voice was the warmest and fullest of the three White Snakes. Her acting was at its best when she was separate from the object of her ardor, tenor Peter Tantsits as a bold-voiced but slightly wooden Xu Xian. She was splendid in her first scene exalting in her transformation, and pleading with Dong-Jian Gong’s imperious Abbot that she loved Xu Xian. The legendary love might have been more convincing if the lovers had looked at each other once in a while. In the final betrayal scene, her white dress replaced by a bare pregnant belly and blood-red raiment, the two showed a first hint of connection.
Hila Plitmann as a captive White Snake in “Gilgamesh” was a half moon rising: luminous while enfolding a darkness not often found in coloratura voices, and impossible to ignore despite only appearing in one scene. Possibly because the beaded gown of the other White Snakes would have been uncomfortable as she lay on the floor, costumer Zane Pihlstrom dressed her in a flowing white robe and wig straight out of Galadriel’s closet.
The other recurring character was Xiao Qing, a man who once loved the White Snake reincarnated as a female green snake to be her loyal servant. As a nod to the character’s past and Peking Opera conventions, the role is played by a countertenor, making for a kind of reverse trousers role. Michael Maniaci, who originated the role in 2010, returned to perform in “Madame White Snake,” injecting an omnisciently sardonic streak. Anthony Roth Costanzo, appearing as Xiao Qing in both “Naga” and “Gilgamesh,” was marvelously emotive. Singing a haunting, expressive Act II aria in “Naga” and soaring modal themes in “Gilgamesh,” he was at once commanding and vulnerable, bearing the character’s 25-pound bejeweled necklace and wheeled tail like the weight of unconditional devotion.
Matthew Worth’s struggle with an illness (announced from the stage) did not detract from his singing or his portrayal of a conflicted Monk in “Naga,” and Sandra Piques Eddy was a hardy and tender Young Wife. “Gilgamesh” brought on Christopher Burchett’s Ming, the White Snake’s half-immortal son, vocally and visually puissant. Heather Buck as his wife, Ku, sang with sparkling lyricism in her rapturous Act I aria, and visceral desperation as she gave birth and had her child stolen at the end. Unfortunately, she was given some of the libretto’s clunkiest lines, addressing her pomegranate tree: “Pomum Gratum, Punicum Malum, Red Grenade.”
Jacobs’s libretti cut deepest when the characters express their individual experiences. “Your hands are like liquid gold,” Madame White Snake rhapsodizes. “Like petals unfolding, I understand my birth.” Less effective are the ponderous platitudes and prayers most often delivered by the choir. Jacobs drew on her childhood in Singapore for a mosaic of cultural references, and “Gilgamesh” is the most indulgent in that way, with biblical quotes, Buddhist and Hindu deities, ancient Chinese and Greek myths, and Shakespeare all jumbled together within a few minutes of one another.
Emerson College professor Scott Wheeler’s music for “Naga” was influenced by hymns, opera through the ages, Japanese gagaku, and Broadway. Theatricality abounded, but it never felt centered. Zhou Long’s music seamlessly fused Chinese and Western conventions, placing a Chinese flute and two-stringed erhu in the pit and giving lush pentatonic melodies to the strings, as well as putting Peking Opera contours and inflections in the singers’ parts. The scene changes were covered by his “Four Seasons,” short settings of ancient poems performed by the sublime Boston Children’s Chorus. Paola Prestini’s atmospheric but tuneful music for “Gilgamesh” inhabited an indie-opera rain forest of its own. The three conductors, Carolyn Kuan, Lan Shui, and Julian Wachner, cleanly directed the orchestral waters where they needed to go, with minimal sonic flooding.
The leviathan production was designed and directed by visual artist Michael Counts, presented by ArtsEmerson and produced by the Friends of Madame White Snake and New York-based Beth Morrison Projects, which is not known to shy away from the high-concept or risky. S. Katy Tucker’s video projections and animations colored the stage. Trees shimmered with light and bloomed with flowers, and many giant screens allowed for some neat forced-perspective tricks involving an animated snake that looked friendly until it ate the audience.
Produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the Friends of Madame White Snake. At Cutler Majestic Theatre, Saturday. “Madame White Snake” repeats Tuesday, “Gilgamesh” repeats Wednesday, and “Naga” repeats Thursday. All three operas repeat Saturday. www.ouroborostrilogy.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.