Ashes & Snow

Header (2)The Pittsburgh Opera world premiere of Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow last evening offered a number of novelties aside from being the first ever performance of the work. Operas featuring a sole singer are rather uncommon. Francis Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine (“The Human Voice”) is the only other that comes to mind that has attained any enduring popularity, but as recently as 2015, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1924 Erwartung (“Expectation”), was the first opera projected live on a Times Square jumbotron. While the French and German works center on lone sopranos and are of somewhat shorter duration, Cuomo’s English-language adaptation of the Wilhelm Müller poems Franz Schubert set to music in the 1820’s runs for an hour and a quarter, and challenges a tenor to carry the show over an electronic accompaniment. An opera premiere with the composer taking up the guitar? Almost certainly a first.

Mr. Cuomo has an extensive background in composing for the stage, television, and film, and Ashes & Snow is not his first opera. His study of music is complemented by years of playing in pop, jazz, and funk bands. “I wanted to break free here and let the music take me wherever it did,” he is quoted in the program notes, “because I could change it as I was composing to fit my inspiration in the moment. I did, however, stay strictly within the form of the Schubert song-cycle. There are 24 poems in the original, and I re-interpret the text of each in a different way.” Müller’s poems inspired him in a variety of ways; a few of the set pieces in the opera are for the most part literal translations, while others he uses as a “springboard.”

Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Eric Ferring, tenor, the _Protagonist_“This is a punky, hard-edged piece,” Cuomo continues, “but it is also a world of miniatures, intimate, stark and delicate. Operatic in its heightened emotion, with movements of great power and great stillness, the protagonist is singing a long and evolving mad scene, as he searches for faith and grapples with his (and our) ideas of love, human connection, loneliness, desire, betrayal, faith, and finally the nature of existence itself.” “We are not sure at the end whether… our protagonist finds what he is seeking,” Director Jonathon Moore adds, “or indeed what choice he will make. But choose he must.”

All this is carried on a musical background of guitar, piano, trumpet and electronic sound effects. The tenor is “mic’d” – not because he needs volume, but to place him on an equal “sonic playing field” with the instrumentalists. There were few moments when this seemed necessary, as the accompaniment wisely and rarely competes with the singer in any way, and the one in question possesses a powerful set of lungs. It also provided the challenge of how to mic a man who spends (nearly) the entire work in nothing but a pair of boxer briefs. The result was the appearance that he kept his wallet in a most unusual location, with flesh colored tape doing the best it could to conceal the wire running up his back.

No CaptionSo far as stage design, a more fitting set for a man confronting his demons could scarcely be imagined. A motel room is trashed in every sense of the word. Liquor and beer bottles, some empty, some not, are everywhere; take-out and fast food trash is sprawled amidst tipped over lamps and drawers pulled from the slides of a dresser. Clever projections heighten the man’s mostly dark moods, and in a spot or two seem like his hallucinations. From the start, the spectator is confronted with the emotional rawness that lies ahead – the first number is sung by the man as he is naked (very discretely posed and in semi-darkness) and trying – unsuccessfully – to keep down the liquor he swills straight from the bottle. There is no turning back from a visceral experience with such a stark beginning. A very short moment of lightness finds him briefly switching on the TV, only to see the off-stage musicians on the screen.

The sheer intimacy of the piece made its staging in the George R. White Opera Studio at the company’s Strip District headquarters a wise decision; it most probably would make a lesser impression in a larger venue. Some familiar with Schubert’s treatment of the poems may find themselves hard-pressed to take in Cuomo’s composition on a first and single hearing, while some may find the unique musical experience entertaining from the start, even if a sameness of mood at times makes the opera seem a bit longer than it actually is. As with the majority of contemporary operas, only time will tell if Ashes & Snow will be revived by other companies.

No Caption NecEric Ferring, the tormented “Protagonist,” sang the role with a vocal opulence that came as no surprise. The music encompasses his finely burnished and powerful head tones and solid lower register in places and allows for occasional fortissimo and delicately delivered pianissimo passages, but for the most part lies comfortably in the middle and provides many opportunities for the display of his voice at its best. He sang the role with a compelling sympathy and a heart-rending understanding of the complex character – sometimes flat on his back or belly, and once from under a mound of bedclothes. Acting the role relies largely on facial expression and body language, and while it’s difficult to imagine a singer not being nervous during the first undertaking of such a role, it hardly showed. The audience was with him throughout, maintaining the art song recital gatherings’ tradition of total silence until the final note faded away – then burst into hearty applause, cheers and whistles. Mr. Ferring modestly attempted to share the ovation with the composer, director, musicians, and designers, and the crowd politely indulged him, but his was by far the finest achievement of the evening, and his listeners clearly wanted him to know it in no uncertain terms.

In many respects, the work offers something for all lovers of music, and the remaining performances are deserving of capacity audiences. For tickets, more in-depth production details and a good deal more about the opera and those involved with its presentation, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for Ashes & Snow

Composer, Douglas J. Cuomo; Director, Jonathan Moore; Musical Direction, Mark Trawka; Scenery & Properties Designer, Brandon McNeel; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Video Designer, Joseph Seamans; Sound Designer/Engineer, Kristian Tchetchko; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Associate Coach, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Emily Grand

David Bachman Photography

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