Comic opera presents modern riffs on biblical themes

March 08, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Everyone eventually checks out of the Hotel Eden -- they have to.

But the Peabody Conservatory of Music is betting that "Hotel Eden," a new comic opera about three couples who can't seem to get along in Paradise, will want to make audiences check in. This 1989 opera, which receives its East Coast premiere at Friedberg Hall this Thursday, has Peabody Opera Theater director Roger Brunyate rapturously evoking Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" when he speaks about "Hotel Eden."

"Usually two good pages [in the score] is enough for me to want to do a new opera," Brunyate says. "But this was a score that just leapt out at me. It has some really heart-stopping music."

"Hotel Eden" is an opera in three acts that is a comic updating of the Bible. Three biblical couples -- the youthful Adam and Eve, the middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. Noah, and the elderly Abraham and Sara -- visit a 1950s-style hotel where angels take the parts of waiters, bellhops and repairmen. There is an unseen Director, who gets pretty angry at his guests because they keep creating chaos and continually make themselves unhappy. The drunken Mr. Noah, for example, causes a flood in the bath and nearly drowns himself, and the Director threatens to "sell the place to Vegas" if people don't shape up.

Henry Mollicone's music for the opera includes pop, jazz and rock. It makes sense that he should employ an eclectic style not far removed from those of Kurt Weill or Leonard Bernstein. He's a composer who has had a distinguished career -- he currently holds the Frank Sinatra Chair at the University of California at Santa Clara -- in film and TV music, as well as in opera. His one-act opera "The Face on the Barroom Floor," is considered a minor classic that is performed almost as often as the operas of Gian Carlo Menotti.

"I prefer to say that I use vernacular idioms," Mollicone says, in explaining why he has filled "Hotel Eden" with popular forms of music. "I enjoy the ability to work in idioms that people can recognize and connect to. If theater doesn't communicate, you've got a problem."

Like the "Marriage of Figaro" -- indeed like most good comedy -- "Hotel Eden" is "about relationships." Adam and Eve are a couple on honeymoon -- he's a young macho guy, and she's a compliant bride. Their newly wedded bliss is upset when Eve learns that Adam had a previous wife, named Lilith, whom he abused because she wouldn't wait on him hand and foot.

The succeeding acts continue to do feminist updates on biblical stories. Noah is a retired admiral -- a recovering alcoholic who relapses because his work no longer absorbs his compulsive energy -- and "Hotel Eden" asks us to imagine what it would be like to married to someone like that. And the final act -- the story of Abraham and Sarah and their handmaiden, Hagar -- is the story of what it's like to have a child in later life. And because it's about one of the most divisive myths in history -- how the Jews and the Arabs, each descended from sons of Abraham, came to be rivals -- it has the resonance of the latest headlines.

"You could call 'Hotel Eden' a feminist, contemporary reworking of biblical themes," says Judith Fein, a Hollywood screenwriter who wrote the libretto. "When I thought about Adam and Eve, I wondered what she would do if a woman from his past showed up. When I remembered that the Bible tells us that Noah was a drunk, I couldn't help but wonder what it was like for a woman to live with him. Then when I thought about Sarah and Hagar, and their sons Isaac and Ishmael, I couldn't help but think about the Arab world -- in which I lived for eight years -- and thought they're still fighting over this story!"

"Hotel Eden" began life as a short one-act piece, "Lilith," in 1985.

"I was asked by a friend, the music director of a synagogue, to write a one-act piece on a Jewish theme," Mollicone says. "Then, when Judith and I finished it, another friend said, 'Why don't you add two acts and have a full-length opera on biblical themes?' "

The piece was finished three years ago and opened to rave reviews in San Jose. The performances by Peabody Opera Theatre will be the second production "Hotel Eden" has had.

"This is a wonderful opera for our students to do," Brunyate says. "It's much closer to musical theater than anything else I've done with them. A lot of it is choreographed, hence it requires a different kind of movement; and a lot of it is filled with popular music, so it requires a different kind of musical discipline. But it's a great, immensely moving piece. It's a chamber opera -- the musical forces are very small -- but Henry has the absolute knack of writing complex things with very simple means. It's a piece that begins in hijinks and ends in a stillness that suggests something very close to revelation. It's such a splendid piece and I have a feeling people will soon be lining up at Henry's door."

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