Eastman Opera Theatre's new production of composer Ricky Ian Gordon's "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" is thought-provoking, and most of all, curious.
Staging this opera-oratorio, which hadn't been presented since its premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1996, is challenging from the outset. Inspired by his own intense, devastating encounter with the AIDS epidemic, Gordon wrote the work as his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi was dying from the disease. The resulting score is a meditation that ranges from forbidding to optimistic. But how does one turn a sacred Buddhist text about the process of dying into a cohesive story?
Stage Director Steven Daigle's interpretation was surreal, but rooted in an ingenious analogy. In setting the opera in a New York City subway station, Daigle seized upon the symbolism of travel as a way of depicting the transition from life to death. Indeed, here "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" seemed less like an opera and more like a journey.
The production begins with an unexpected, traumatic event that leaves one traveler fatally wounded, while onlooking strangers bear witness to the untimely death. What follows comes across like a hazy dream, as the strangers become intimate participants in a series of cathartic rituals that help prepare the dying for death. The individual characters come together to deliver a liturgy of tension and release, leading to comfort and hope for The Dying/The Dead One, sung with a clarion, bell-like vibrato by soprano Sally Curran. Gordon's opera, aided by Jean-Claude Itallie's libretto, urges the dying person to embrace detachment from the physical world, in favor of freedom from emotional and physical need: "By wanting you become an angry ghost...Best to rest empty."
All eight singers had unpretentious deliveries that added emotional authenticity. The most effective performances came from baritone Travon Walker as The Reader, as well as soprano Sarah Forestieri and bass Nathaniel Malkow. The decision to mic the singers seemed odd, but it was undoubtedly made to provide balance between the cast and the chamber orchestra.
Eastman's take on "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" leaves the audience with plenty to ponder: a heartfelt reflection on death as a vital part of life, sung with conviction and manifested through intelligent set design by Daniel Hobbs and deft musical direction by conductor Timothy Long. The production, which continues through Sunday, is a rare chance for Rochester to experience a rewarding and important entry in the contemporary operatic repertoire.
Note: In 2014, the writer worked as a librettist with one of the Eastman cast members on an original opera at Crane School of Music.