Abraham in Flames Burns Brightly at Z Space

Steven Winn on May 11, 2019
Renée Rapier (left), with members of the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco, perform Abraham in Flames, by Niloufar Talebi and Aleksandra Vrebalov | Credit: Devlin Shand Photography

Abraham in Flames, a 70-minute opera that received its world premiere May 9–12 at Z Space, turned at least one operatic convention on its head. The chorus, instead of supporting or commenting on the action of the principals, was itself the principal character. Sung with a sweet purity of tone and some impressive musical chops to boot, the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco collectively embodied Girl in this poetic, moodily atmospheric, and often bewildering work by creator and librettist Niloufar Talebi and composer Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Ryan Belongie as Angel in Abraham in Flames, by Niloufar Talebi and Aleksandra Vrebalov | Credit: Aron Taub

According to a program note, essential preshow reading to set an audience member’s bearings, the piece is Girl’s coming-of-age story, “inspired by memory, trials by fire, and the life and work of the Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou” (1925 — 2000). One of the poet’s books invokes the biblical story of Abraham’s trial by fire. A tree also figures in the backstory.

Useful as it was to have had such information, Abraham was not bound by any textual narrative. The original libretto by Niloufar Talebi, a remix of images and metaphors from Shamlou’s life and poetry and her own memories, were often mysterious, epigrammatic, intuitively rather than logically linked. “Everything starts with a question,” Girl proposed at the outset. A series of allegorically named adult characters — Angel, Poet, Knowing, Happiness, and Fear — offered their own notions, philosophical musings, and riddles in response.

Countertenor Ryan Belongie’s black-clad, gauze-masked Angel came first. “Would you rather be happy, dim and happy,” he asked, “or knowing and suffer?” Bass Kirk Eichelberger (Knowing), asserted, on a repeated deep note, “I am what I am. I feel what I am.” A while later tenor Andrew Metzger’s Happiness wondered, “Where do I go?” Girl countered cryptically, “What have I done?”

Renée Rapier as Poet in Abraham in Flames, by Niloufar Talebi and Aleksandra Vrebalov | Credit: Aron Taub

In a welcome if apparently cautionary break from all this abstraction, soprano Nikki Einfeld (Fear) stormed onstage with a passel of shopping bags in hand. Her strident advice: Get your feet on the ground. Show some grit and pluck.

Language, probing and allusive as it was at times, mattered less than the immersive staging and Vrebalov’s seductive and colorfully orchestrated score. Directed by Roy Rallo, with a sleek production and lighting design by Heather Carson and costumes by Christine Crook, the opera stirred interest even before it began. As the audience filed in to be seated around a long rectangle, the chorus members were already busily at work, punching out cards that might have been train tickets to nowhere. Gathered in groups of three, they were dressed in white — a chorus of angelic workers on the cusp of womanhood, each one fitted out with a little miner’s light belted on their foreheads.  

Soon enough, with the first eerily drone-like chords from the six-member orchestra, the chorus was up and milling about. One by one the adult singers slipped into the crowd. Things happened now and then, involving a collection of branches, some simple set pieces, and a snowstorm Girl set off in a dreamy image. A distracting video melange — which featured the titular fire along with images of the sea, a spider, urban traffic, and students kidding around on a bus — hijacked the four projection screens that carried large subtitles of the text (performed in English) for most of the way.

Members of the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco as Girl in Abraham in Flames, by Niloufar Talebi and Aleksandra Vrebalov | Credit: Aron Taub

Whenever the 39-voiced Girl sang, Abraham elevated. Having memorized a fair amount of music as well as stage business, the Young Women’s Chorus looked and sounded assured and committed. Their musical entrances were deft, the unisons and harmonies true and some layered tone clusters wonderfully reverberant. Performing a few feet from the audience, they never looked or sounded self-conscious.

Near the end, declaiming an intention to go forth and “discover the depths of the human heart,” Girl had apparently come of age. As singers and actors, they’d shown a striking maturity all along.

The musicians, under conductor Stefano Flavoni’s hand, gave a strong account of the kaleidoscopic score. The nimble percussionist Andy Meyerson conjured up the feel of a souped-up gamelan orchestra at times. Other passages evoked a klezmer sound and sentiment. An accordion and electric guitar enlivened the proceedings now and then. The vocal lines were often distinctive and engaging, quieter and more murmurous for the chorus; dramatic, melismatic, and sometimes intensely keening for the adults.

Though studded here and there with ritualistic action, Abraham in Flames remained largely static. Even with the absorbing production values, it came off as a kind of elaborately staged oratorio, with its free-standing pillars of poetic voice. Musically and vocally, it was a different story. The dynamic and lustrous sound remained in search of a scaffold to give this new opera a firmer and more dramatically engaging form.