Paola Prestini’s ‘Oceanic Verses’: Opera’s music is mostly compelling


There are many layers in Paola Prestini’s “Oceanic Verses,” a collage of pieces of found folk music reworked into a single score about the history of Italy and the bitter fate of women. Shown: Nancy Allen Lundy, Helga Davis and Christopher Burchett star. (Jill Sternberg/The Washington Chorus)

Words about music can be off-putting. “Oceanic Verses,” the opera/event that had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Saturday night, arrives freighted with so many ideas that its program notes make it sound absolutely deadly: a “meditation on fading civilizations,” with videos presenting “an abstraction of [each character’s] essence” within a “larger ‘video environment’ ” and so on.

The good news is that the music is often considerably more compelling than the weighty language made it sound. The composer, Paola Prestini, and her creative team have high ambitions but also, evidently, some common sense about what works onstage: characters you can connect to, music that engages. They’ve also been working on this material for a long time: “Oceanic Verses” originated in 2009 as the result of a professional training workshop staged by Carnegie Hall.

The bad news is that, unfortunately, that weighty language signals the piece’s true aspirations, and they sometimes rise up to shipwreck its progress. “Oceanic Verses” is a deliberate collage of pieces of found folk music reworked into a single score about the history of Italy and the bitter fate of women. The main character is an archaeologist sifting for relics of the past, an obvious reflection of the composer, who dug for shards of folk songs and poetry from all over Italy and across the ages and set them off against raw solo lines of flute and violin, or refracted them across the vocal spectrum of 40 members of the Washington Chorus (one of the event’s five co-presenters).

At times, almost improbably, the layering of ideas and music knitted together to present something that moves forward with the vitality of the original folk material. But with so many layers, it’s almost impossible to avoid tangles.

Here’s an interesting idea: Two of the four characters, the Peasant and the Soldier, are opera singers (Christopher Burchett and Nancy Allen Lundy); they represent, it turns out, the life of the past, and their love story turns out to be sweet, simple and touching. Their old-fashioned, trained sound is juxtaposed with that of a folk singer, the Sailor (Claudio Prima), and an improviser, the archaeologist (Helga Davis, who dug into her lower register as an archaeologist digs into the soil): the rougher voices of the present day. Here’s a not-so-successful idea: trying to mingle those four voices in a quartet or even a duet. We get the point, but it doesn’t sound very good, and someone is generally drowned out.

Add video by Ali Hossaini, in the same vein of exalted symbolism (lots of crashing wave patterns), the Washington Chorus as the voice of the Mediterranean and the energetic participation of Novus NY, the contemporary music ensemble of Trinity Wall Street, all under the energetic baton of Julian Wachner, and you get, undeniably, a cohesive 80-minute package. It certainly holds together more than many such projects; and the applause, at the end, was long and loud. The show goes on to New York, where it will be performed as part of the River to River Festival on Monday night.

It might have won me over more had its basic premise, under all the good ideas, seemed sounder. In the program notes, Prestini explained her fascination with the found song “Fimmene” from a minority group in southern Italy, which reveals the sexual exploitation of women in the lines “Women who go to work in the fields, you go in pairs and return in fours” (meaning that the women have become pregnant). I can see that this is telling, particularly if you’ve gone out and done field work to record the song in the first place, but I’m not sure it’s quite as telling as Prestini makes it: It becomes a kind of mad scene for the archaeologist, presumably as she recognizes the unfair lot of women — although this point would be pretty opaque to anyone who hadn’t read Prestini’s notes.

And how do Prestini’s heroines break the cycle? They kill themselves: The peasant buries herself alive rather than give birth to a daughter who will grow up to be exploited in turn, and the archaeologist ends the work by walking into the sea. Surely there are better ways to break the cycle than by falling into the easy, traditional trope of the victimized operatic heroine.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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