THE MARK OF CAIN
Chelsea Opera opened its 2012–13 season with a program consisting of two theatrical works based on episodes in the Book of Genesis. These were Benjamin Britten's Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac and the world premiere of The Mark of Cain, a one-act opera by Matthew Harris. The bill was presented in St. Peter's Church in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood on November 8, 9 and 19.
The Mark of Cain was written in collaboration with Terry Quinn, a highly experienced librettist. For this opera, Quinn made use of various accounts of Cain and Abel, including Genesis, the Koran and particularly the Jewish Midrash. The story picks up on the tale years after Cain's murder of Abel has occurred. The performance featured a cast of emerging singers, some of who demonstrated an enormous level of talent. Pride of place goes to baritone Brace Negron in the role of Cain. Negron has a powerful, dramatic voice and a commanding stage presence. His portrayal was fully convincing, showing Cain as an intimidating ruler, yet one who is plagued by insecurity and haunted by his past. Mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert proved a strong performer as Zellah, Cain's sister and rejected bride-to-be, who, disguised as the ghost of Abel, leads Cain down the path to his own destruction. Tom McNichols, who portrayed God, was most impressive vocally — a true basso profundo with a captivating tone and strength of voice.
VOCE DI MECHE
Friday, November 9, 2012
We rarely enjoy operas composed after Richard Strauss lay down his pen; we almost never enjoy operas sung in English; and we do not care for biblical stories. And yet. And yet we had a perfectly fine evening spent with Chelsea Opera last night, happy to have our prejudices overcome. ...
The second half of the program comprised The Mark of Cain, a new work by Matthew Harris with libretto by Terry Quinn. The story appears to be a fantasy about Cain's life many years after the fratricide, but it is actually based (loosely perhaps) on the Koran and the Jewish Midrash as well as other ancient texts. It certainly illustrates how sexual jealousy and greed can result in tragedies of bloodshed. Cain's sister Zellah tracks him down to avenge the death of their brother Abel, masquerading at first as Abel's ghost.
The story is an engaging one and well-handled. The music is far more interesting than most contemporary music we have heard. The themes are at times vaguely Middle Eastern but always accessible and listenable. The 18-piece Chelsea Opera Orchestra played well under the baton of Maestro Crawford; we were particularly taken with the harp motives, sensitively performed by Kathryn Andrews and the thrilling percussion (Paul Robertson and Charles Kiger).
Bass-baritone Brace Negron made a convincing Cain with some good strength in his lower register while mezzo Blythe Gaissert was an excellent choice for Zellah who must convince Cain that she is Abel's ghost before she reveals herself as the sister. Soprano Kate Oberjat portrays the serpent who tempts Cain; she was in fine voice and got to do some dancing as well. Tenor Jonathan Kline and baritone Jonathan Estabrooks provided some comic relief in their non-biblical costumes as Moradesh and Caleb who serve to introduce us to the character of Cain. God is played in a spiffy white suit by bass Tom McNichols who seemed to have bottom to spare.
Direction by Lynne Hayden-Findlay was effective and her costuming was well-done; we especially enjoyed Cain's royal robes and crown. Her co-founder Leonarda Priore was responsible for the set decoration and the two women introduced the program in unison in their customary charming fashion. Bringing a work such as this one before the public is always a risk, one that here payed off for the artists and the audience alike. One would do well to take advantage of the opportunity to see a compelling new work with more performances scheduled for Friday and Saturday night as well as a matinee on Saturday.
"An interesting libretto by Tery Quinn found new depths in the familiar story of Cain and Abel."
Biblical opera is something we don't see very much in New York these days. Chelsea Opera recently presented an evening of two short Biblically-inspired pieces at St. Peter's Church. The two works were Benjamin Britten's "Canticle ll" op. 51, a twenty- minute work for two voices and piano, based on the tale of Abraham and lsaac, and "The Mark of Cain," a chamber opera in one act, with music by Matthew Harris and libretto by Terry Quinn, in its premiere performance.
"The Mark of Cain" is scored for six soloists, an 18-piece orchestra, and chorus. As in the Britten, all of the action takes place on a raised platform in front of the sanctuary of the church. There is a backdrop made of swaths of blue and orange fabric suspended from a wire - one is reminded of the dyers souk in Marrakesh. The air is suffused with incense.
Librettist Terry Quinn has fashioned an original story around the sparse facts given in Genesis about Cain and Abel. He has supplemented this sketchy information by drawing on other sources, including the Koran and a Midrash which postulates the existence of twin sisters to both Cain and Abel. One of these sisters, Zellah (Abel’s twin, disguised as his ghost) comes to the Land of Nod where Cain is living (post-murder) to avenge Abel's death. This innovation has the operatic advantages of adding a love interest and a high voice.
lt seems that Cain and Abel were each originally betrothed to the other’s twin sister. ln this version of the story, sexual jealousy between the two brothers was a contributing motive for the original murder. ln the course of the opera this murder is reenacted, with interventions from both the Serpent and God himself. Eventually, Zellah reveals her true identity. Cain tries to seduce her, and Zellah takes her revenge by stabbing him to death. There is a touching ending in which Zellah cradles the dying Cain in her lap while she sings him a lullaby their mother Eve used to sing to them as children. ...
“This is prima le parole (words first) opera. The words are well set and intelligible much of the time.”
“The quality of the lyrical and musical workmanship
Photos by Richard Marshall. Courtesy Center for Contemporary Opera.