“Mila, Great Sorcerer” still in apprentice stage at Prototype Festival

Sun Jan 13, 2019 at 12:24 pm
Andrea Clearfield's opera, "Mila, Great Sorcerer" was performed Saturday night at  the Prototype Festival. _mia-low

Andrea Clearfield’s opera, “Mila, Great Sorcerer” was performed Saturday night at the Prototype Festival.

In the age of Philip Glass, an opera can be pretty much anything you want it to be. But at some point, you do need to decide.

Mila, Great Sorcerer, an opera-in-progress composed by Andrea Clearfield to a libretto by Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden, and unveiled by the Prototype Festival Saturday afternoon in the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, seems not to have reached the decision point yet.

And that’s okay. Billed as a “first-look presentation,” Saturday’s semi-staged performance offered much to like in Clearfield’s expressive score for Western and Tibetan instruments, engaging rear projections of Tibetan art and iconography, and excellent musicianship from soloists, chorus and orchestra. But it left a lot of questions about how it was treating its subject.

And an intriguing subject it was: Milarepa, a hero of Tibetan folklore, who (like Christianity’s Saint Augustine) raised hell in his youth but later found enlightenment and became a revered singer, dancer, and spiritual teacher. As with the saint, he occupies a special place in the hearts of the faithful precisely because of that journey from all-too-human sin (mass killing, in his case) to holiness.

There are many approaches one could take with a musical theater work about that journey. It could be a ritual, an object for meditation, more like an oratorio than a story play. It could be a series of scenes from the protagonist’s life, a sort of musical “biopic” (think Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs). It could be a verismo drama, the characters passionately engaging, building to a dramatic climax.

As of Saturday, Mila, Great Sorcerer was partly all of the above, but not satisfyingly any of them.

The most developed aspect of the work was Clearfield’s score. From the music itself and advance interviews, it appears the composer’s Mahlerian goal was to express the psychic state of the individual in quest of spiritual solace. (Her music doesn’t otherwise resemble Mahler’s, except maybe in a fondness for bright sonorities of percussion and harp.)

Considering the composer’s and librettists’ history of engagement with social and political issues, and their previous comments associating Milarepa (or Mila) with American soldiers returning home from war, it’s clear this work is intended to offer a musical bridge to a better spiritual state for anyone who needs it.

On Saturday, the dramatic action and character development didn’t keep up with this ambitious concept. The piece was presented in two acts with an intermission between, and the first act seemed like a setting more of the synopsis than of dialogue: Boy loves nature. The father dies. Scheming relatives cheat the mother out of her land. Mother demands that son get revenge, sends him to Iraq—excuse me, to a sorcerer—to become a trained killer. He comes back and lays waste to everybody and everything. One had a feeling of boxes being checked, not of action arising out of relationships and motivation.

All this came with a generous helping of high notes and oversinging in the small space of the Lynch Theater. The weak father and the domineering mother—effectively sung by baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and soprano Lauren Flanigan—seemed an oddly Freudian trope to find in a Tibetan legend, but such stories do turn up in many places, and it added some psychological dimension to the characters.

The piece arrived at its halfway point very dramatically, with the protagonist manically exulting and (figuratively speaking) up to his elbows in blood. But the road to enlightenment was supposed to be a long one, and our guy hadn’t even left the driveway yet.

In the second act, he did find Marpa, his spiritual guide—robustly sung by bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana—only to be tormented at some length by the guru with arduous, pointless tasks, as if to educate him in the meaninglessness of all striving in this world. This was all too well impressed on the listener as well, until Mila finally vented his anger at the teacher, after which enlightenment followed in short order.

There remained only for Mila to resist temptation by demons disguised as his parents and his scheming relatives, to enlighten a young man who had come to rob him (sweetly sung by tenor Jonathan Blalock), and to join with the entire cast in a blissful closing chorus. Again, the music for all this was more convincing than the dramatic action.

Tenor Aaron Blake was in fine voice as Mila, sounding as powerful and fresh at the end of his taxing role as at the outset, and phrasing sensitively in the more thoughtful moments. Soprano Flanigan managed well in the vocal pyrotechnics of the raging mother.

Mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti and baritone Matthew Gamble sang with power as the larcenous aunt and uncle, with Gigliotti adding an amusing turn as a guru-mocking demon in the second act. The dusky-voiced baritone Will Liverman sent shivers as Mila’s sorcerer-teacher. Soprano Susannah Biller sounded angelic as Danema, Marpa’s handmaiden.

The chamber orchestra The Knights, wielding not just Western instruments but a variety of jangly Tibetan ones, realized Clearfield’s ever-changing orchestral textures superbly under the attentive direction of Manoj Kamps. The New York Virtuoso Singers, well prepared by their director Harold Rosenbaum, were discreetly present with Greek-chorus-style narration and commentary.

Greg Emetaz’s projected video of paintings, flames, and rotating wheels nicely complemented musical metaphors with visual ones. Gene Kaufman’s set consisted mainly of a sloping ramp bisecting the orchestra onstage, used mainly for entrances and exits (and one special effect I won’t give away here). The cast sang at music stands at the front of the stage, discreetly lit by lighting designer Lucrecia Briceno. Costume designer Andreea Mincic dressed the cast in black for common people and white for the enlightened, with primary-colored short capes for the main characters (except the white-clad Mila). Demonic shadow dancers, choreographed by Darrell Thorne, loomed on the back wall from time to time.

A lot of thought clearly went into visualizing what was essentially a workshop reading of this work. As to the libretto, if the enlightened Mila will forgive me, perhaps it’s time to be a bit more goal-oriented.

Mila, Great Sorcerer will be repeated 1 p.m. Sunday. prototypefestival.org. 


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