If opera is essentially "A Song of Love and Death," as the title of Peter Conrad's book proclaims, the curiously assorted trilogy now playing at Mount Vernon College gets close to its essence. The evening is called "Games of Love" by the college's impecunious but imaginative and resourceful "Opera in the Chapel" series. But death -- the ultimate challenge to which love is the ultimate answer -- figures prominently in all three of the program's segments.
The subject is treated with witty cynicism in Lawrence Moss's "The Brute," in which a recently widowed woman is almost effortlessly seduced by one of her late husband's creditors. It is tinged with mysticism, ancient folklore and transcendental philosophy in Gustav Holst's "Savitri," when Death approaches, singing "I am the law that no man breaketh," but Savitri persuades him to spare her husband.
The centerpiece of the trilogy, Berlioz's song cycle "Les Nuits d'Ete," is the most problematic part. Nothing in the words or music requires it to be staged as an erotic triangle with two sopranos and a tenor, and in fact, the material rather resists such treatment. The tenor sings a lament for his dead belle amie and his loneliness sans amour when, in this treatment, two attractive women are competing for his affection. Elsewhere, a soprano sings of an absent, feminine bien-aime'e -- no problem in a recital performance, but awkward in a dramatic treatment when the soprano is pursuing a tenor.
Still, despite a slight air of patchwork, the Berlioz work interacted interestingly with those of Moss and Holst. Thematic resonances connected at least four songs either to "The Brute" or to "Savitri," and the sentimental-melodramatic approach of Berlioz rounded out effectively the variety of ways in which the interactions of love and death were viewed.
Musically, too, Berlioz filled out the evening's variety of styles. Lush and richly melodic, it complemented the energetic work of Moss with its angular, expressive vocal lines and penetrating orchestral comments and the contemplative Holst with its rhythmic fluidity and exotic-sounding vocal modalities.
The evening's primary problem was verbal clarity and the primary offenders were sopranos -- singers trained to sacrifice clarity for tonal richness and to project German, French or Italian with more precision than their own language. Tenor Joseph Song and soprano Susan Bender (who otherwise sang and acted beautifully) had this problem in "The Brute," while baritone Byron Jones gave almost a textbook demonstration of how English can be used clearly and effectively in opera.
In the Berlioz and Holst works, tenor Robert Barefield was suffering from a severe cold. But even singing with a half-voice, he produced a clear, pleasant tone, and his interpretation of the music, in phrasing and gestures, was impressive. Mezzo Willow Johnson sang beautifully in the Berlioz, and so did mezzo Linda Allison, despite some moments of edgy tone at the beginning of her performance. As Savitri, soprano Debra Lawrence had opulent tone but lost verbal definition above mezzo-forte. Baritone Daniel Britt was very effective, vocally and theatrically, as Death.
The instrumental part of the evening was ingeniously varied. Pianist Carla Hubner, artistic director of the company, participated in the nine-piece orchestra for "The Brute" and the three-piece orchestra for "Savitri," which was arranged for piano and two synthesizers in this production. Joel Lazar conducted with precision and eloquence except in the Berlioz, where Hubner's piano accompanied the voices.
This intriguing program will have repeat performances tomorrow and Sunday nights.