'Ligeia' needs coherence but bursts with potential

February 21, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Sitting through "Ligeia" is like coming down with the flu. A listener feels alternating chills and fever, along with patches of incoherent overload that leave his senses reeling.

This new opera, by composer Augusta Read Thomas and librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer, based on the Edgar Allan Poe tale of the same name, was unveiled yesterday at the Peabody Conservatory. "Ligeia," which was commissioned by the cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich for the 1994 Evian Music Festival in France, is still a work in progress, and one suspects (and hopes) that its final form will be somewhat different in its official world premiere in May than what was heard yesterday afternoon.

One says "hopes" because this work, by a superb young composer and an equally brilliant young librettist, is filled with potential. On the surface, Poe's original tale doesn't seem like promising operatic material. It's a tale that mixes necrophilia and narcissism in equal parts, and its first-person narration unfolds in what seems a hallucinatory state. But Dunton-Downer has opened up "Ligeia," making the historical Poe the hero and using details of his fabled life to fill out the opera.

But a libretto is only as good as the music it inspires in a composer, and much of Thomas' music slithers impressively through a listener's pores as well as his ears. It opens with a wedding scene that impressively sets Poe's "The Bells," and it concludes by doing something that is difficult to achieve in a musical drama -- making ambiguity seem a satisfying ending.

But Thomas and Dunton-Downer's "Ligeia" -- even in a production intelligently directed by the conservatory's Roger Brunyate, superbly set by designer Michael Franklin-White and brilliantly lit by Douglas Nelson -- needs a lot of work. The needs of drama -- as opposed to those of purely verbal literature -- require a certain amount of coherence, and this opera often sinks too deeply into Poe's original phantasmagoria for an audience to follow it. What further impedes clarity is Thomas's music itself, which frequently so overpowers the text that it often made the vocal ensembles yesterday (particularly in the first act) sound like a complete jumble.

This made the entrance of the character Ligeia less impressive than it should have been. Her singing "in several tongues, known and unknown," a note by the librettist tells us, "demonstrates for Poe the acoustic sensuality and talismanic vitality of 'strange' sounds that provoke the ear to hear newly, less rationally." But this cannot be achieved if what is heard before her entrance is indecipherable. More coherence might be lent by professional singers in place of Peabody's student principals, but Thomas and Dunton-Downer still need to cut "Ligeia's" luxuriant undergrowth.

The playing of the student orchestra, which was led by Gene Young, was excellent. The members of the student cast -- Geoffrey Parrish (Poe), Monica Reinagel (Ligeia) and Jenny Elliot (Rowena) -- faced the difficult music courageously, and Jennifer Davison (Virginia Clemm) was a dazzling standout.

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