John Corigliano and Mark Adamo’s new Dracula opera, “The Lord of Cries,” which premiered at Santa Fe Opera on July 17, operates at fever pitch for three hours—it’s a brilliantly creepy theatrical experience with Anthony Costanzo, countertenor, at its gender-fluid center. This is mostly Dracula on a symbolic basis—the novel by Bram Stoker has by now been dumbed down into Halloween costume and breakfast cereal (Count Chocula) posterity by American pop culture—but this particular Dracula happens also to be Dionysus, son of Zeus—coming to Victorian London to avenge his past. It’s like “Sweeney Todd” meets “Suspiria.”
Musically, the Corigliano score is often boldly unpleasant to listen to. It wears modernism on its sleeve—there are no curtain-closing arias, no soaring love duets. “The Lord of Cries” lives in an insane asylum and sounds like it. Still, the big operatic voices are let out to play in highly dramatic ways—even if the sounds they are making aren’t pleasing in a traditionally melodic way. The singing advances the story but also serves as atmospheric addition to a lush dissonance coming from the pit. Corigliano’s music is challenging yet seductive—nothing that you’ve heard before, but rich in musical ideas which deserve further study.
Behold the danger/Of thwarting passion!/Naming it sin!
You may assuage the priest within/But not the beast without
Dionysus, the God of wine, ritual and ecstasy was not all about partying. Vengeance and violence were in his wheelhouse against enemies. His mythic band of female bacchantes notably tore apart the King of Thebes (a mortal relative of Dionysus) limb from limb. In “The Lord of Cries” the female victims of Dracula’s “three odd sisters” became entranced—wafting around in group ecstasy when not tearing out the flesh from huge cow carcasses which get dragged onto the stage in an orgy of pagan madness. This is the kind of imagery seemingly designed to send Fundamentalist Christians screaming towards the exits.
Dracula/Dionysus’ antagonist is Jon Seward—Dracula hunter in the novel, head of Carfax Asylum in the opera. Jarrett Ott, a former Apprentice Singer in Santa Fe, delivers strong persona and a passionate baritone voice to the part of the representative of “good and right,” a bit of a Dudley Do-right in the midst of all the pagan lesbian blood-sucking. His love interest is Lucy Harker, a married woman (a character which the authors created combining two different characters from the original). What might be simply forbidden love in another opera takes on a different power surrounded by insanity and vampirism, with eternity at stake.
Katherine Henry, an Apprentice Singer, took over as Lucy for the Metropolitan Opera regular Susana Phillips in the last week or two of rehearsals (no reason was given). A little young-looking for the role, she sang with authority and demonstrated real lung-power in the final scenes, where Lucy is coming to terms with her own desires just as she gives in to the overtures of Dracula. The music here turns suddenly and ironically romantic–a shift to major-key sounds almost jarring in contrast to the rest of the score. Henry makes an outstanding debut as a principal singer.
Her transformation to animal form is effectively accomplished via shadow. Projections (designed by Adam Larsen) are used very effectively here and throughout the opera—creating ocean, fog, and ghosts as well as animal images.
Costanzo gives a very effective under-the-top performance as Dionysus/Dracula, shining in a golden light which makes him more God than villain, adding to the moral complexity of the story. His countertenor voice is also used effectively—an otherworldly blend of male and female, delivered with a minimum of histrionics. The three “odd sisters” or ladies in white, who spend most of the evening luring young London women into their vampire cult—have some of the oddest and disarming opera harmonies of the evening. No problem here. The parts were sung confidently by Apprentice Singers Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein and Megan Moore. Costuming, by Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko, effectively delineates mortals from others. Costanzo appears in a breastplate and dresses; his sisters appear, at one point, in matching gowns which make them look like Pilgrims in colonial America, on trial in Salem perhaps, weird without any obvious nods to Transylvania.
Director James Darrah chose to keep the female chorus members on stage for much of the evening, even when they weren’t singing. As victims of Dracula, they waft in a circling, slow-motion dance of ecstasy, like a coven of London’s finest. Indeed, the dream-like feeling of much of the evening has the same slow-burning sinister quality—in contrast to the music, which operates in a near-constant state of alarm.
“The Lord of Cries” is challenging stuff—a complete theatrical immersion into a world of jarring, homoerotic paganism. Vampires have always been about sex, but this fusion of Greek myth with Victorian horror story is effective because it heightens the moral stakes of its characters. Contemporary politics and even the world of pandemic we have been living through all seem relevant to one of the basic ideas of the opera—fear of the ‘other.’ A vampire/God has no reflection because he is a reflection of us.