When it comes to opera, my poisons of choice are first Benjamin Britten and then Erling Wold, the former indisputably a difficult composer but endlessly rewarding for the effort, the latter often just as bizarre, brilliant, and biting. Following rather disappointing ventures years ago in trying to access trad opera, I discovered these two almost simultaneously, and they reinforced one another in driving an interpretational Rosetta stone into my struggling aesthetics.
Wold issued some indie releases and then came to small notice in the beautiful score to Jon Jost's film The Bed You Sleep In (1993), afterwards emboldened to issue some truly sophisticated, albeit oftimes consummately unusual, music in 13 Versions of Surrender and the operas A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil (1995, based on Ernst), Queer (2000, adapted from Burroughs—William, not Edgar Rice), Die Nacht Wird Kommen (2002), and Sub Pontio Pilato (2003). Now comes a musical play on the strangest concept yet: a man, Edward (Edvard) Mordake, with two faces—his own on one side of his head and that of a young demonic female on the other. Believe it or not, Mordake, more often spelled 'Mordrake' and strongly suspected to be of the royal peerage, is an actual historical figure, one of the most unusual "freaks" in human history. He committed suicide at 23 because the extra face whispered hideous things to him at night.
This opera, then, is for those with specialized tastes in neoclassicalism, progressive airs a la Art Bears, Michael Mantler, serial minimalism, and the just plain offbeat. No less a figure than Paul Dresher has recognized Wold's vaulting imagination and skills and performed his work, but, in this new offering, Erling talked the San Francsico Composers Chamber orchestra into various scattered performances that became subsumed into his own electronic work, including piratings of snippets from a catalogue of recordings and sundry sonic massagings resulting in a surprisingly homogenous atmospheric timbre.
John Duykers, a favored encanter of Wold's, landed the lead role in the earlier Pilato. The man possesses a "bella voce" tone as well as an eminantly dramatic and pliable face, and is himself so enamored of the composer that he asked Erling to write a solo opera for him. Mordake was the composer's suggestion, so Duykers brought in Doug Kearney for the Poe-Lovecraft libretto, an eerie and often sardonic colloquy twixt Edvard and his parasite, Brigit. More, Wold rigged a unique transportable lighting/set conflation, and the disc's liner photos give an excellent indication of just how fluidly they worked. For an overwiew of the event that'll make you wish to hell you'd been there, see: http://www.sf360.org/features/sfai-mordake-and-week-two-reviewed .
The music is convoluted and tumultuous yet well ordered in its own fractal logics, the lyrics sung in English in Duykers' heroic exhortations ever attempting domination of the reedlike insinuations and madnesses of his sister, snakily evoked through Korporate Marionettes' devices to produce a mocking hectoring from Duykers' own vocal chords (remember, this is a solo opera!), the result effecting a personality split and schizophrenias effective on more than one level. On top, to the side, and underneath, Wold crafted a welter of environments leaping from harsh urgency to ambient tranquility shot through with muted echolalia—the bridge from Go Get Our Supper! to What Have You Done? being a great example.
This daring purveyor of far horizons favors nightmare and the disturbing undermatrix of consciousness in his work, and Mordake is his most impressive evocation of that since Taking the Veil, to my mind stunningly high art…but if you'd care to see what he's capable of in a much more mainstream context, check out this month's review of his byzantinely gorgeous Missa Beati Notkeri Balbuli Sancti Galli Monachi as well (here).
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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