Opera Parallele Shines a Light on Heart of Darkness

Lisa Hirsch on May 4, 2015
Isaiah Bell and Thomas Glenn in Opera Parallèle’s US premiere production of Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness. (Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo)
Isaiah Bell and Thomas Glenn in Opera Parallèle’s US premiere production of Tarik O’Regan’s Heart of Darkness. (Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo)

Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, a tale of colonialism, plunder, and madness in the Belgian Congo, is every bit as relevant now as on its publication date in 1899. While we're well past the heyday of European colonialism, we continue to live with its consequence worldwide.

All things considered, it's something of a surprise that Tarik O'Regan's opera Heart of Darkness took four years to reach the United States after its 2011 premiere at the Royal Opera's Linbury Studio Theatre. Its brevity and eloquence, as well as the small forces it requires, make it a natural for adventurous opera companies everywhere.

Leave it to the ever-alert Opera Parallèle, champion of contemporary and 20th-century opera, to remedy the situation. Its production, strongly cast and beautifully played, scores another success for the company and makes a strong case for the opera.

Unlike the opaquely-written novella, in which Conrad buries the passage of time and obscures the actions and motives of his characters, Tom Phillips's libretto is a model of clarity. Phillips splits the action geographically and temporally, alternating between a yacht on the Thames, where a veteran sailor named Marlow tells a story from his youth, and Africa, where we see Marlow's story unfold.

He's been sent by a European trading company to the Belgian Congo, charged with discovering just what has happened to Kurtz, an agent of the company. Kurtz sends more ivory to the company than all other agents put together, but he has not been heard of in some time. After a months-long journey, Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, only to find him deranged and on his deathbed.

From hints dropped by others, Marlow realizes that Kurtz has been exploiting the Africans and plundering ivory. Returning to Europe, confused and conflicted by the contrast between the remarkable Kurtz others have described to him and the wreck he has met, Marlow becomes complicit in Kurtz's acts by concealing what has happened and refusing to tell the truth to Kurtz's fiancée.

O'Regan and Phillips don't put any of the novella's abuse and violence on stage, choosing to tell rather than show. For better or for worse, and it's impossible to say which it is, this has a distancing effect, shielding the audience from the brutality that Conrad portrays. The physical production does somewhat make up for this, featuring projections using colorful African-style graphic elements from Matt Kish's illustrated Heart of Darkness. Additionally, the stage is lined with elephant tusks, and costumed, volunteer audience members seated on stage hold even more tusks. Working with a 14-person ensemble, O'Regan creates a continuously shifting musical tapestry and many gorgeous effects.

Working with a 14-person ensemble (and a good bit of instrumental doubling), O'Regan creates a continuously shifting musical tapestry and many gorgeous effects. His orchestration is exceptionally beautiful, and about all you could wish for in that department is a larger ensemble, because the drama sometimes calls for a good deal more sound than five strings can provide.

O'Regan is at his best in set pieces such as Kurtz's dark and hair-raising entrance aria, sung only on the words “I....am.....glad,” and ensembles such as the short, hymnlike chorus accompanying Kurtz's death. However, in telling rather than showing, much of the libretto comes across as talky and unpoetic. In these passages, O'Regan uses a style of monotonous syllabic setting that's all too common in postwar opera, giving the impression that the musical tempo doesn't change much. His consistently inventive orchestration keeps the ear engaged, but given the power of the set pieces, I wish he'd been more expansive, and more melodic, in his treatment of dialog and monolog. Nonetheless, the opera's musical strengths significantly outweigh these weaknesses.

That the opera was cast with some of the best local singers contributed greatly to its success. Philip Skinner's haunted, terrifying Kurtz dominated the opera despite the brevity of the role. As Marlow, Isaiah Bell brought a sweetly beautiful tenor and a suitably innocent air. Thomas Glenn was a shifty, layered Harlequin. Shawnette Sulker made a strong impression in the tiny role of the archetypal River Woman. Heidi Moss's soprano has gained depth since I last heard her, and she was sad and eloquent as the fiancée. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov was a hearty, funny boilermaker. Michael Belle, Daniel Cilli, and Jonathan Smucker ably filled the smaller roles.

Artistic director Nicole Paiement conducted the unflagging score as brilliantly as ever, pacing the music well and keeping the ensemble and voices in good balance. Brian Staufenbiel, creative director, designed the art installation and directed, making clever use of the small performing area and just a few props.