Crushing Pathos

RON BIERMAN listens to Nicolas Reveles' 'Ghosts'


Nicolas Reveles was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer shortly after completing Ghosts, and it is tragic that he died just weeks before its world premiere in a San Diego Opera production. A sincerely religious man, his spirit lives on in the minds of the many grieving friends and admirers who attended the premiere and knew how important he was to San Diego opera lovers as a pre-performance lecturer, pianist and composer.

Ghosts is a set of three short Reveles operas. John de los Santos directed its premiere and also wrote the libretto for Eden, the first of the three. His plot includes the terrifying effects of a malevolent painting Stephen King would be proud of.

Andres Acosta as Clay in 'Eden' by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel
Andres Acosta as Clay in Eden by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel

Michael Vegas Mussman wrote the libretto for Dormir, the tale of a murder planned by a mother and her son. The libretto for House, the closing and strongest of the opera trio, was written by the composer himself. It features a mother who has moved into a new home and is haunted by nightmares in which her children and despised ex-husband play starring roles.

Although the three stories are unrelated, they reflect Reveles' lifelong fascination with horror, and his scores match the darkness of the plots. When I interviewed him a month before his death he said, 'We live with the ghosts of past trauma just as ghosts inhabit a house'. The 'ghosts' of Dormir and House appear only after the enactments of the traumatic events that created them, and may be the imaginings of guilty consciences rather than the supernatural phantoms of Poe, King and Lovecraft. Even the evil painting of Eden could be interpreted as the result of its owner's horrible descent into hallucinatory madness rather than a manifestation of unnatural evil.

However the audience chose to interpret the stories, there was no doubt that the production's staging, voices and acting, were excellent, as were the Tim Wallace sets and Faith James Steenbergen costumes.

The uneasy eerie atmosphere was reinforced by occasional mute figures behind a diaphanous backstage curtain. Led by conductor Bruce Stasyna, nine San Diego Symphony musicians were at their own eerie best, but with a scattering of attractive melodic fragments, many of them featuring Frank Renk's warm-toned clarinet. The singers, on the other hand, were asked to deliver nearly continuous recitative-like streams of colder, more modern sounds that fit the bleakness of the stories, leaving little room for memorable arias.

Clay, Eden's only singing role, was played by tenor Andres Acosta. His penetrating voice and compelling acting made for a riveting San Diego debut.

Appearing briefly near the end of Dormir, he switched adroitly from mad wealthy art collector to the flippant amoral young son who executes the final step of his mother's plan for murder. Mezzo-soprano Ann McMahon Quintero played his mother Yadira, teaming nicely with baritone Michael Sokol's Mr Costello.

Ann McMahon Quintero as Yadira and Michael Sokol as Mr Costello in 'Dormir' by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel
Ann McMahon Quintero as Yadira and Michael Sokol as Mr Costello in Dormir by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel

The darkness and exasperation in her voice and acting as a caretaker convincingly conveyed her understandable animosity towards Sokol's equally convincing portrayal of an obnoxious and paranoid patient. Incongruously, given the ending, the pair spent most of the opera's length in sung dialog suited to a TV sitcom. And they did get the uncertain laughs of people who weren't sure they should be laughing, the biggest a reaction to the line 'He dies tonight'.

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, alone on stage, played the broken lonely woman of the final short opera, House.

Emily Fons as the woman in 'House' by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel
Emily Fons as the woman in House by Nicolas Reveles. Photo © 2023 Karli Cadel

It was her third appearance in San Diego and quite a contrast to her previous light-hearted roles here in Mozart and Rossini comedies. She reportedly jumped on the chance to play the part, perhaps to show her breadth of acting skills. In any event, she convinced me that she can star in heavier roles. The crushing pathos of the closing moments were the most affecting of Nicolas Reveles' final opera.

Copyright © 22 April 2023 Ron Bierman,
San Diego, USA



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