CIPULLO: After Life
LAITMAN: In Sleep The World is Yours
Pine, Cook; Orth; Chenovick (Laitman); Hausmann (oboe), Miller (piano); Music of Remembrance, Kirov. English texts. Naxos 8.6690
AFTER LIFE , a fifty-minute opera by Tom Cipullo with a libretto by David Mason, imaginatively posits that Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, two giants of the modernist movement, are stuck in a sort of purgatory together after their deaths, giving them the opportunity to revisit their always-complicated relationship. (It’s reminiscent of Sartre’s No Exit.) Among other issues, they debate the role and responsibility of artists during an era of horror and social upheaval. As such, they are mutually accusatory regarding each other’s activities during World War II, and also seem obsessed with how they will be remembered. (Stein mentions several times that she was on the cover of Time.)
About halfway through the piece, an unidentified Girl joins the proceedings. Stein once bought a rose from her (and uttered her most famous quote), and the Girl drew comfort from this memory as she suffered and died anonymously in a concentration camp. Cipullo’s music, unfailingly inventive, is mostly in an appealingly varied extended tonal language, but during appropriate passages he provides the angular, driving dissonances one might expect from an opera about these two avatars of modernism. Cipullo cycles nimbly through the full spectrum of emotions Stein and Picasso provoke in each other, unfailingly setting Mason’s illuminating and provocative libretto so it can be declaimed with great clarity.
Mezzo Catherine Cook makes for a formidable, colorful Stein with an outsized ego but humane core. She sounds luscious on long phrases, although a few sustained notes reveal a slightly distracting wobble. The charismatic baritone Robert Orth is in fine, vibrant form, shaping his singing with the sharp, precise inflections of speech while defending his art and reveling in his virility. Cook and Orth are very well matched, egging each other on with genuine escalating drama. As the Girl, soprano Ava Pine unexpectedly takes the wind out of their sails with her sorrow, grace, and wisdom, not to mention a thread-like high C sustained for a startlingly long time. Pine’s aria, which she renders exquisitely, is a miniature autobiography of memory and suffering, and it’s the most affecting passage of the opera. Stilian Kirov leads the five expert instrumentalists of Music of Remembrance, which commissioned the work.
Lori Laitman’s In Sleep The World Is Yours is a set of three songs to texts by Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, who was born in Romania and met a tragic end in a Ukrainian labor camp when she was eighteen. Happily, her poetry survived. Laitman, who uses the unusual combination of soprano, oboe, and piano for this cycle, seems deeply connected to the words, which are clear and straightforward but brimming with emotion. Her melodic and lyrical music is enveloping but also imaginative and penetrating, especially in the concluding “Tragedy,” in which the poet realizes she will “fade like smoke and leave no trace.” Megan Cenovick matches Laitman’s empathy with her comforting, nuanced soprano. Benjamin Hausmann (oboe) and Mina Miller (piano) contribute with sensitivity. The poet’s voice in these three songs and the Girl in Cipullo’s After Life resonate movingly and meaningfully with each other. —Joshua Rosenblum