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Hai-Ting Chin: mezzo-soprano
John Garrison: tenor
Mark Uhlemann: bass-baritone
Tom Chiu: violin 1
Philip Payton: violin 2
Kenji Bunch: viola
Raman Ramakrishnan: cello
Brian Demaris: conductor
The transformations that opera is undergoing right now make it an exciting time for those working with the form. Composing an opera continues to be a major career goal for many composers, but the task of actually mounting a full production—at least as it has been traditionally defined through history—is daunting, to say the least. As of late, much contemporary opera has been reducing its footprint by relying on smaller forces for performance and documentation. Darkling, with music by Stefan Weisman and libretto by poet Anna Rabinowitz, is one such example of an opera that packs a punch even though served in a relatively small container.
The libretto for Darkling is a collage of text snippets culled from letters, photographs, and other memorabilia from Eastern European Jews that serve to illustrate the tumultuous period (both from a personal and an historic perspective) between the two World Wars. Twenty-three very short movements, ranging from less than one minute to a little over five minutes, are sandwiched between a longer prologue and epilogue. Layers of spoken word, singing, and the occasional chunk of archival audio are intertwined with a supporting bed of string quartet music that makes for an intimate listening experience.
Interestingly, for all of the work’s nonlinearity, both the text and the music are built upon the same very solid foundation—Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” While Rabinowitz created a book-length acrostic poem (!) from the text scraps with the poem at the core, Weisman found inspiration from composer Lee Hoiby’s setting of the poem, sprinkling tiny seeds of content from that song into his music. Perhaps this shared thematic element explains why the music so effectively supports the text without ever getting in the way. However, so crucial is the poem to this work that it is surprising neither it nor the acrostic are reprinted (or even excerpted) in the liner notes.
This 2-CD incarnation of Darkling (it was originally produced by American Opera Projects) is a compelling listen—the texts, given carefully nuanced deliveries by a cast of rich voices perfectly suited to storytelling, are so engrossing that at times I forgot that music was happening as well. But like a well-crafted film score, that the music is unobtrusive and sometimes melts into the larger dramatic structure is a positive.
It would be fascinating to experience a live production, to discover how the many layers and fragments are handled in three dimensions. However, this aural version of Darkling is beautifully recorded, strongly conveying the feeling of a radio play. Even though the fragmentary nature of the storyline means that there isn’t exactly an “ending” so to speak, the opera nonetheless paints a vivid and satisfying picture of a challenging historical period.