Many have observed that present-day politics have made it tough for comedians accustomed to bouncing one-liners off headlines, since events in the news already seem more outlandish than anything the comedic mind might conjure.
But how about an operatic farce, would that fare any better? The indefatigable Boston opera impresario Cerise Lim Jacobs, together with her production company White Snake Projects, has recruited a new team of collaborators to give it a shot, including composer Julian Wachner, director Mark Streshinsky, and dramaturg Cori Ellison. The resulting project, titled “Rev. 23,” premiered this weekend at John Hancock Hall.
As with her past projects, which include the opera “Madame White Snake” and the “Ouroboros Trilogy,” Jacobs has supplied the concept and libretto for “Rev. 23.” The program describes it as “a farcical hellish opera” and as “a parable of our times,” one that takes the form of an imaginary new completion of the Book of Revelation, which, in the real New Testament version, ends after 22 chapters. The official synopsis tells us that, at the opera’s opening, “the Kingdom of God has come upon the Earth. There is no darkness, want, or strife.”
What there is, is a vivid set (by Zane Pihlstrom) that smoothly pivots between a place described as “UP THERE” — at least nominally, a version of paradise — and “DOWN HERE,” which the program calls “the deepest pit of Hell.” The characters form a motley ancient, mythic, and post-apocalyptic crew. Greco-Roman gods mingle with biblical figures (including the Archangel Michael and Adam and Eve) and Sun Tze, author of “The Art of War,” is brought in as a consultant. Loosely stated, the opera’s plot centers on the scheming of Lucifer and Hades, who are on a mission to wreak havoc in the world of paradise, all in the name of returning darkness to a supposed utopia of perpetual light.
Somewhere here may be the ingredients for a hilarious existentialist romp, perhaps in an early-Woody Allen vein — but, I’m very sorry to have to report, “Rev. 23” is definitely not it. At Sunday’s performance, the last in a run of three, the opera came across as a cheerfully, earnestly yet nonetheless supremely muddled work, a piece that seems to place both big laughs and big ideas in its sights without really knowing how to hit the mark in either case.
The big ideas Jacobs is keen to explore are worthy and, indeed, timeless: that good and evil, joy and suffering, light and darkness only take on meaning in each other’s presence, and that experiencing their inseparability is part of what it means to be human. But this is terrain best approached obliquely, and through the resonance that builds from onstage interactions of characters that an audience can actually care about. There is a dearth of such characters in “Rev. 23.” In their place we are given two-dimensional gods, warriors and ciphers, and other figures who seem to have drifted from the pages of a Joseph Campbell lecture.
As for the big laughs, what’s funny is always a highly personal question. Aside from the odd political-topical reference, this opera pins its comic hopes on a succession of antic schemes perpetuated by the denizens of DOWN HERE: to blow up a generator that powers the eternal light of paradise; to infect the pristine minds of the land UP THERE with art, literature, iPads, and televisions; to kidnap Adam and Eve. You get the idea.
When the protagonists are not busy with these plots, they tend to muse in earnest and baldly metaphysical terms. I’ll let them speak for themselves. “What a sham, what a farce,” Lucifer sings at one point, “this duel between good and evil/When good and evil spring from the very same place/The mind of God.” For her part, Eve yearns for “a brave new world/On the other side of sunrise/Where butterflies go to die.”
Wachner’s protean score deftly employs a grab-bag of 20th-century operatic and musical-theater styles to hold a mirror to the libretto. And on Sunday, a capable ensemble cast turned in highly committed performances, including Michael Mayes as Lucifer, Vale Rideout as Hades, Colleen Daly as Persephone, Michael Maniaci as Archangel Michael, David Cushing as Sun Tze, Jonathan Blalock as Adam, and Annie Rosen as Eve. From the pit, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya steered the ship with care and precision.
But does “Rev. 23” add up to more than the sum of its many parts? For me, not remotely. For others, apparently yes. Sunday’s audience rose to its feet, so consider this a minority view. Next up for Jacobs and White Snake Projects, in September 2018, will be “PermaDeath: A Video Game Opera.”
Julian Wachner, composer; Cerise Lim Jacobs, librettist
Presented by White Snake Projects
At John Hancock Hall, SundayJeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jeremy_eichler.