Review: A New Opera Puts Real Emotions in a Fantasy Garden

SAN PEDRO, Calif. — “What is art?” the composer Kate Soper asked at the beginning of “Ipsa Dixit,” her last big stage work, from 2016.

In her tender, whip-smart new opera, “The Romance of the Rose,” which premiered this weekend at Long Beach Opera, she quotes a chunk of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that poses another query: “What is love?”

No one has ever accused Soper of shying away from the big questions. And her works go about answering them studiously but sensuously — with earnestness, wit, whimsy, self-awareness and music that ranges freely among, for a start, Baroque madrigals, power ballads and barbed modernism.

In “Ipsa Dixit,” she answers the question “What is art?” with, more or less, the piece’s title: It is whatever I say it is. In “The Romance of the Rose,” the answer to “What is love?” is something like: It’s a lot of conflicting things, in a scary, delicate balance. It’s every thing.

Over a decade in the making and based on the medieval epic of the same name — nearly 22,000 lines of octosyllabic Old French couplets — “The Romance of the Rose” adapts some of the poem’s strands while adding inventions of Soper’s own. (She usually writes her librettos, often with interpolations from other authors, ancient to modern.) In an allegorical garden, the Dreamer guides the Lover as she pines for a rose: “What a perfect symbol for a dream of love!”

Aroused and confused, the Lover is set upon by the God of Love, Lady Reason and Shame — and all have advice that’s at once persuasive and suspect, compelling and incomplete, about how the Lover should feel, about what love means.

As the loose, stylized, funny, often poignant plot progresses, these allegorical characters seem to lose their moorings; in Soper’s world, even stock figures can’t be trusted to maintain their points of view. (This isn’t, or isn’t just, the old battle between head and heart.) The fatal seductiveness of narcissism; ambivalence about performing; the nature of reality — it’s all, ambitiously, here.

I should insert what has become a standard caveat about this composer: Describing “The Romance of the Rose” might make it sound dry and bookish, but it isn’t. Soper’s text is so sly and eloquent — “Since the truth’s thus riddled with such tears, the essential question’s not ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘Who cares?’” — and her music so eclectic and quick-shifting that her work keeps you engaged even when you’re a bit baffled. Like her other stage pieces, “Rose” is high culture and low, talky but agile, brainy but — and! — feeling.

Few composers are as interested in, or as gifted at, exploring the transitions and the middle ground between speaking and singing, which gives Soper’s works a familial relationship to book-based musical theater. There’s something of “Hadestown” in this new piece’s opera-pop-Broadway amalgam and mythological milieu, even though Soper’s vision is less folksy and more crystalline — more like Sondheim in its precision and cleverness, its laughing-crying lucidity about life’s complications, if not in its sound.

Her vision of musicals extends from sumptuous golden-age lyricism through “Phantom of the Opera”-style rock belting to contemporary confessional intimacy, though she’s also unafraid of astringency, complexity and moments of plain noise. There is also the lovely, pared-down tunefulness that gives away Soper’s early-career roots as an aspiring singer-songwriter: She writes in an online essay about “The Romance of the Rose” that the germ of an aching torch-song duet for Idleness and Pleasure (two minor characters who nod toward a Greek chorus), a highlight of the score, dates back to those days.

Like a true singer-songwriter, Soper trusts economy of musical expression. Christopher Rountree, Long Beach Opera’s music director, conducts an ensemble of nine, but often the instrumental textures are sparer than even those modest forces. In one memorable passage at the end of the first act, the Dreamer’s elegy is accompanied by the slow calligraphy of a solo viola.

Lucas Steele, center, surrounded by cast member in “Rose,” directed by James Darrah, the new head of Long Beach Opera.Credit…JJ Geiger

It’s Long Beach Opera’s luck to have ended up with the piece after its premiere — planned for April 2020 at Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series — was canceled by the pandemic.

Long Beach, which in 2019 premiered Anthony Davis’s “The Central Park Five” before it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, has had some internal rockiness in the past year over its commitment to inclusion efforts but also a new artistic director, James Darrah, who has staged “The Romance of the Rose” at the Warner Grand Theater here.

Darrah’s production is a mixture of scrappiness and chic, and emphasizes the otherworldliness of Soper’s conception. Prairie T. Trivuth’s set, lit starkly by Pablo Santiago, depicts the garden as a pristine white courtyard dotted with potted plants and, eventually, dripping with blood. Molly Irelan’s costumes, with period cuts, vivid fabrics and sparkling touches, further the opera’s mood of pert pastiche. Its Baroque references connect medieval France to the glittery splendor of 17th-century allegorical court masques.

In keeping with Soper’s stylistic variety, the cast comes from a range of musical backgrounds but shares a commitment to making the bountiful, erudite text legible. (The supertitles, for once, aren’t really necessary.) As the Dreamer, Lucas Steele has a sweet voice and Disney-prince ingenuousness with a self-referential wink. Radiating a charming mixture of naïveté and intelligence, Tivoli Treloar has a light mezzo-soprano flexible enough to convey all the Lover’s changes of perspective.

As the God of Love, Phillip Bullock travels from airy falsetto to basso profundo depths. Anna Schubert is a fiercely articulate Lady Reason, Laurel Irene a punkish Shame. Tiffany Townsend and Bernardo Bermudez bring rich-toned gusto to Idleness and Pleasure, here a couple of louche lounge lizards.

“The Romance of the Rose” isn’t perfect. The piece experiments with giving each of the three main allegorical foils a distinctive live-electronic vocal processing identity — Lady Reason, angular vocoding; the God of Love, echoey reverb; Shame, angry distortion. But even if it had been more perfectly executed, this conceit feels like a complication too many in an already complicated piece.

Soper’s previous major stage works, “Here Be Sirens” (2014) and “Ipsa Dixit,” were substantial single acts. Conceiving “The Romance of the Rose” in two acts was Soper setting a new challenge for herself, not just in length but also in structure. What, in theater, should prompt an intermission, and what brings the audience back for more? What hunger in the first act does a second act satisfy; what crisis is resolved?

These are questions that “The Romance of the Rose” doesn’t entirely solve. The second act feels like more of the same, with a somewhat blurrier version of the characters having the same debates they had before the break. (The production could be clearer in the final half, too.)

Discussing the piece later with the friend I brought to the performance, I thought that Shame, which we learn at the beginning is our “urge for self-annihilation” — “an emissary from the gut to foil both the head and the heart” — might have been more effectively introduced as a crisis at the end of the first act. The war that ensues between her and the rest of the dramatis personae might then have given the second act higher and sharper stakes.

Shame’s role in the first act as an equal point in the allegorical triangle surrounding the Lover might be true to the original poem. But in the opera this figure feels like the odd one out, rather than the singular nihilistic force opposing everyone else onstage.

It’s a criticism, sure. But the fact that my friend and I spent hours going over what we enjoyed and what we might tweak about “The Romance of the Rose” gives you a sense of the piece and its marvels, its ability to stick in the mind and soul. After all, a lesson of the opera is that, for better or worse, we can’t help wanting to perfect the things we love.

The Romance of the Rose

The final performance is on Saturday at the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro, Calif.;

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