Every few years, a new opera comes along that's intended to redefine the art form. Bob Massey and David Wilson's "The Nitrate Hymnal," which had its world premiere Thursday night at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial Auditorium in Alexandria, is the latest assault on the battlements of traditional opera.
But despite Massey's pedigree as a post-punk guitarist, much of "Hymnal" hearkens back to 17th-century opera, with lithe, chantlike vocal lines written as nearly continuous recitative, and a chamber orchestra (acoustic strings, electric guitars, keyboards and drums) playing a gently supportive role.
Even the plot has an early-baroque gloss: Michael, a filmmaker watching his grandmother's life ebbing away in a hospital bed, shows her home movies to rekindle her memories and keep her alive. Through the films, grandmother and grandson relive her husband's geriatric decline, her son's suicide and her courtship and troubled marriage. At the end, Death arrives (in a surprising human form) to carry her to a reunion with the husband she loved but betrayed. The filmmaker is left with his celluloid memories.
The modern element of filmmaking aside, we might as well be watching Orpheus charming Death to win his bride Eurydice back from Hades. Massey -- whose cache of home movies from his own grandfather sparked this fictional tale he's created with Wilson -- is acting as a double-Orpheus here, telling a story of redemptive art while using his own art to redeem a lost loved one.
But if the form of "Hymnal" hasn't reinvented the operatic wheel, its sound world feels fresh. That's not to say Massey, whose day job is as a news aide at The Washington Post, doesn't raid a few genres -- post-punk rubs shoulders with post-Sondheim; progressive jazz melds with fusion; and brief visits are paid by Shostakovich, Piazzolla and Glenn Branca -- but the musical stew is very much his own. There's less guitar-driven music than you might expect from an indie-rock composer. But the canny orchestration by David Durst (with contributions from Massey and producer Jean Cook) uses the guitars for color, to growl threateningly under the strings or simply add a little grit to the texture.
The vocal writing is unfailingly lyrical, though much of it is less than memorable. Melodic fragments are repeated too often, yet rarely build into musical sentences or paragraphs, let alone songs with catchy hooks. But that's judging "Hymnal" by rock-and-roll expectations and not by the work's own emotional logic or dramatic trajectory -- both of which are capably served by the writing.
The singing is an amalgam of classical rigor, jazz flexibility and Broadway belting best exemplified by soprano Susan Oetgen's sweetly lyric turn as Mimi, the grandmother. Brian Baker's tenor is a slender reed of a voice, but he sings grandfather Robert with tenderness and a touching vulnerability. As Michael, Cesar A. Guadamuz sings in a warmly communicative pop croon, while at the other end of the vocal spectrum, Hai-Ting Allison Chinn uses her unabashedly operatic mezzo to imposing effect in the role of a nurse who is not quite what she appears to be. Marcus Kyd is unsettlingly effective as son Walton -- seen only on film, his thoughts voiced on the soundtrack by Massey.
Throughout "Hymnal," film is as vital and potent a presence as music. Wilson has lovingly restored Massey's 8-millimeter source material and then manipulated it to underscore the drama, as when a mundane action is looped to create the visual rhythm for a scene, or a moment of reverie is slowed to capture an evanescent smile. Wilson devised the creepy suicide footage as well, and coordinated live video feeds that interact with the performers.
He is well supported by director David Schweizer, who has a knack for finding the gesture that can distill a pivotal moment in a character's life, and for drawing committed acting -- and clear delivery of Massey's often eloquent lyrics -- from his attractive young cast. The design elements further amplify the visual world Wilson and Schweizer have created, from Beth Baldwin's chaste white hospital-curtained set, to the otherworldly chill of Mike Daniels's lights, to costumes by Lynn Sharp Spears that touchingly echo the 1940s fashions seen in the home movies.
The Nitrate Hymnal, produced by Anti-Social Music and sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society, repeats tonight at a sold-out performance and tomorrow afternoon at 2.