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Creator and Librettist Cerise Jacobs, Following Success of Ambitious Ouroboros Trilogy, Develops REV. 23 with Composer Julian Wachner

Berkshire Fine Arts called Cerise Jacobs’s Ouroboros Trilogy “the most ambitious opera undertaking Boston has ever seen” when it premiered in three complete cycles this past September at the Cutler Majestic Theater. And the Boston Globe wrote, “Ouroboros, a cycle of three mystic operas (“Naga,” “Madame White Snake,” and “Gilgamesh”) by three profoundly distinct composers, is an enchanted exploration of the eternal mysteries humanity has always turned to mythology to explain: love, loss, hubris, mortality.”

The visionary creator and librettist now turns her attention to REV. 23, an unlikely comic addition to the Book of Revelation. Though her libretto opens with an epigraph from Revelation forbidding such an addition, Jacobs proceeds to add an extra chapter to the Bible’s final book, asking the question of whether, in the paradise-on-earth it promises at the end of history, human beings could ever be truly happy or even truly human. Jacobs collaborated on the new opera with composer and conductor Julian Wachner, Director of Music at Manhattan’s Trinity Church Wall Street, where he oversees the program the New Yorker calls “a mini Lincoln Center for classical music downtown.” The first public performances of REV. 23 will be in workshops at the New England Conservatory on October 30 and 31, closely followed by the presentation of an excerpt at the kickoff concert launching the Boston New Music Festival in November. The opera will have its world premiere in Boston in September 2017 as the centerpiece of the Boston New Music Festival’s inaugural season. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, who served as chorus master for the Ouroboros Trilogy performances, will lead the production. REV. 23 will be directed by Mark Streshinsky, Artistic Director of California’s West Edge Opera, with dramaturgy by Cori Ellison, and Nunally Kerch will be the Producer along with the Friends of Madame White Snake.

As was the case with each of the three operas in the Ouroboros Trilogy, REV. 23 will benefit from a three-week development process at the New England Conservatory, led by Chair of Opera Studies, Joshua Major, which will culminate in a piano performance featuring NEC students at the end of October. At the beginning of November, Yankovskaya will lead an excerpt from the piece at the Boston New Music Festival. Further steps in the process include orchestral work-in-progress readings with Trinity Church’s resident new music ensemble, NOVUS NY, at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust and Manhattan’s St. Paul’s Chapel, part of the Trinity Church parish, with further readings and seminars still being planned for Washington, DC, where Wachner conducts the Washington Chorus, and in Boston. The piece will premiere in Boston at the end of September 2017.

The conceptual framework for Jacobs’s story opens up what Wachner refers to as a “mythological Toontown,” referring to the eclectic metropolis of animated and non-animated characters and objects in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Jacobs draws from similarly disparate realms for her cast, including not only characters from Revelation (most notably, a villainous and utterly humorless Archangel Michael), but also from mythology and even history. Thus she has the banished angel Lucifer joining Hades in the underworld, while the latter’s girlfriend Persephone laments the endless paradisiacal summer that renders her job as harbinger of the seasons obsolete: “Trees teem with fruit / Fields burgeon with food / Skies rain manna / And rivers choke on milk and honey. Of what use is Persephone now?” Three Furies supply choral backup, likened variously by Jacobs to Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, the Norns, or the Sirens. What Wachner calls “an über-myth that is articulated in many different faith traditions” permits Jacobs an eclectic borrowing from whichever culture suits her purpose best.

The quest of Lucifer and Hades to restore the balance of light and darkness that defines life as we know it is depicted as a necessary and even generous act. As Jacobs articulates their dilemma:

“Perhaps we couldn’t live in a utopia and maintain our humanity, because we would lose our sense of purpose, any striving, any ecstasy, any rapture. … When the opera opens, we find Lucifer and Hades plotting like guerilla fighters as to how they could break out of hell and overthrow the powers that be up above.”

When the conspiracy hatched by the two succeeds only in a moment’s respite from the endless summer, they turn to one of the underworld’s notorious guests, Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, for help. He convinces them that only knowledge can poison the well of paradise, a lesson Lucifer, at least, might be expected to have already learned. Thus Jacobs’s plot inextricably moves toward a repeat of the original expulsion from Eden, with the twist that the new Adam and Eve look forward to their less perfect, more human world.

REV. 23 is Wachner’s second full-length opera. The first, written to a French libretto elaborating the Longfellow poem Evangeline, was composed while he was an Associate Professor at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal and principal conductor of Opera McGill. The Boston Globe declared his Evangeline Revisited “colorful and assured” in a 2006 review, and he reprised the work for New York City Opera’s VOX Festival in 2010. The composer cites three comic pieces he conducted at McGill as particularly useful models for the creation of REV. 23: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Britten’s Albert Herring, and Mozart’s Così fan tutte, as well as Handel’s romantic comedy Partenope, which was the vehicle for Wachner’s conducting debut with San Francisco Opera in 2014. As Jacobs says of her collaborator:

“There was a very fortuitous meeting of minds with Julian. He just happened to be very well versed in the background of REV. 23, got the libretto immediately, and was able right away to vigorously discuss all nuances and details, and ask in-depth questions.”

Director Mark Streshinsky, who since 2009 has served as the Artistic Director of California’s West Edge Opera (formerly Berkeley Opera), has also directed a number of productions for Boston Baroque, including Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and The Magic Flute featuring Nicholas Phan as Tamino. He directed Handel’s Agrippina for the same company in 2015, when the Boston Globe noted how he “amplified any hint of antics in the libretto, and added some of his own, often drawing peals of laughter from the audience.” The review went on to say that he “elicited some wonderfully vivid performances” from his stellar cast.  See members of the creative and production teams discuss REV. 23 here.

The monumental undertaking that culminated in the September premiere of the Ouroboros Trilogy was applauded by audiences and critics alike. The Boston Musical Intelligencer proclaimed that “the cast of each opera…performed not just adeptly, but captivatingly. The visual display of the trilogy took advantage of modern digital technology to create awe-inspiring sets.” Special praise was reserved for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake by composer Zhou Long, which was proclaimed to be “excellent, a near perfect score. From its first chord it grabs the listener and keeps him in its special world until its very last note.” The same review went on to describe the audience reaction to Jacobs’s amazing achievement: “On what mayor Marty Walsh proclaimed as ‘Ouroboros Day,’ each segment of the three-part performance hummed with excitement. Will-call lines stretched down the sidewalk. … Each opera played to a nearly full house.” As the South Shore Critic blog added: “The crowning moment was a (well deserved) standing ovation for Jacobs, whose obvious glowing elation with the reception of this audience was unforgettable. After decades of work on her trilogy, the palpable warmth from the opera-lovers present seemed to overwhelm her, as well it might. It was a magnificent night for opera.”

Cerise Jacobs: Projected schedule for REV. 23 to date

Oct 11           
Boston, MA
Piano Workshop Begins at New England Conservatory

Oct 30/31, 7:30pm
Boston, MA
Public performance by students
NEC Brown Hall

Nov 2, 7:30pm
Boston, MA
The Oberon
Excerpt performed at Boston New Music Festival
Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya

Jan 7, 3pm 
New York, NY
Time’s Arrow Festival/St. Paul’s Chapel
Orchestral work-in-progress reading

Jan 14, 3pm
Brooklyn, NY
Prototype Festival at National Sawdust
Orchestral work-in-progress reading

Sep 2017
Boston, MA
World premiere of REV. 23

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© 21C Media Group, October 2016

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