Opera Philadelphia premiered David Hertzberg’s stunning new opera The Wake World in 2017. Based on a mystical fairy tale by occultist Aleister Crowley, it’s an exercise in glorious, phantasmagorical excess, both story-wise and musically. In 2018 the Music Critics Association of North America awarded it Best New Opera in North America.
If you glance at the libretto (included in the CD booklet) on and off, but keep your eyes closed the rest of the time, the music plunges you into Crowley’s mystical world. Lola, sung by soprano Maeve Höglund (from the Opera Philadelphia cast), undergoes an epic journey toward eventual bliss with her Fairy Prince, who is essayed with bold fluidity by Samantha Hankey.
I mean “epic journey” literally – the story even includes a plunge into an underworld.
Louche and purple the libretto may be, and loaded with sometimes gleefully incorrect archaisms. But it’s inspired by and at points directly taken from Crowley’s prose. And it’s opera. It would be strange if the combination didn’t prove explosive.
The composer’s other inspiration was a visit to the Barnes Foundation museum, with its collection of objects from all over the world displayed in artistic/sculptural combinations and arrangements. As Barnes’ eccentric juxtapositions make the arrangements say something beyond what the individual items do, the vivid wholeness of the opera likely also relates to Hertzberg’s having written the libretto and the score simultaneously. Words and music share an impressionistic, dreamlike quality that corresponds to the original story from which its main images and incidents derive.
Especially on a recording, the music is all. Here it’s a vivid mix of French romanticism, a downtown avant-garde vibe (from the heavy reliance on keyboards and percussion), and Hertzberg’s own distinctive hallucinatory modernism, alternately propulsive and atmospheric. A band of only seven musicians creates orchestral walls and curtains of sound ranging from the gossamer far-away to percussive smashes and howls that are almost painful.
Occasionally the music obscures Hankey’s lower register, but overall the careful mixing has a deep, live feel. The soloists do a fine job, as do the three singers who take on the beautifully written roles of the Sirens.
I really like Hertzberg’s controlled yet surprising approach to melody, as well as his theatrically paced sense of rhythm.
A large (in context) chorus of 24 singers, which includes members of The Crossing and the Opera Philadelphia Chorus, provides rich backdrops. In fact some of the most powerful effects and moments arise from the choral passages, culminating in the eloquent and forceful “Things both strange and true.” The music packs a sustained and even overflowing emotional wallop.
Though this is a love story, only at the very end do Lola and her Fairy Prince duet, and only when they come to sing of the “joy of dissolution.” But the opera does not leave one with a feeling that anything has dissipated. Though it puts aside reason in favor of mysticism, its artistic effect is unambiguously solid.
Naturally, an opera performance lacks important dimensions on an audio recording. But the press announcement’s description of The Wake World as a “hallucinatory choral fantasy” is a good one too. As Hertzberg says, “The Wake World represents a deeply personal vision, an attempt to render in lurid detail the strange, frightening, inarticulable mystery of the imagination, into which I poured every iota of my creative being.” Every iota of this audio recording leaves no doubt he’s speaking the truth.