OPERAS COMPOSED BY JAKE HEGGIE are becoming standard fare in Atlanta. This spring, Atlanta Opera collaborated with Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit to present Jake Heggie’s two-act Out of Darkness: Two Remain as part of its Discoveries Series at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s (seen Apr. 13). Out of Darkness is a provocative work. Sparked by a commission from Seattle’s Music of Remembrance a decade ago, the opera began as a single song “A Hundred Thousand Stars,” and gradually morphed into three song cycles—“For a Look and a Touch,” “Another Sunrise” and “Farewell Auschwitz.” In 2016, Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer transformed the dramatic and musical content into two unrelated narratives in which Krystyna Zywulska and Gad Beck, Holocaust survivors now in the winter of life, literally confront ghosts from their past. The work had its premiere in its current form at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2016; Atlantans were offered the first production of Out of Darkness mounted by a professional opera company.
AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, a champion of Heggie’s work, was stage director for Out of Darkness. Zvulun and scenic designer Christopher Dills created an intimate, tri-level tableau for Act I. The ash-laden stage, surrounded by drab concrete walls, served as a room in Auschwitz where we witnessed the interaction of the young Krystyna (Bryn Holdworth) alongside her fellow prisoners—a trio of women bound in friendship by their common circumstance; a small, raised circular platform, dressed with a desk and recording equipment revealed the aged Krystyna (Maria Kanyova) as she watched her younger self. Lyric soprano Kanyova adeptly negotiating the demanding, yet thankless vocal writing that she was assigned. Heggie’s Act I music is through-composed and generally sparse, with the exception of a few set numbers; the singers accompanied by a skeleton crew of strings and woodwinds are sometimes just in duet with a single instrument.
Holdsworth, a second year studio artist with a warm voice, sings the most lyrical tunes in the first act, but mezzos Elise Quagliata and Gina Perregrino shone as Krystyna’s compatriots, Zosia and Edka. Quagliata’s sometimes harsh delivery pushed vocal boundaries, but proved to be the most intense moments within the story; Perregrino sang Edka’s snatches of music with rich clarity. The trio explored moments of musical levity with enviable balance, as in the jazzy trio, “Miss Ziutka”; the orchestra, led by conductor Joseph Mechavich and concealed upstage behind a scrim, supplied lively pizzicato.
Act II of Heggie’s chamber opera features the story of Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin, lovers who were persecuted by the Nazis as a result of their sexual orientation. Gad Beck, played by actor Tom Key, survived the Holocaust and reached old age, but Lewin, who died at Auschwitz, remained eternally young. Baritone Ben Edquist, a graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, sang the role of the poet Lewin with stunning beauty, especially within the poignant and tango-esque “A Hundred Thousand Stars.” As the characters reminisced about their love affair, Key and Edquist managed to conjure longing without seeming saccharine. As a glittering disco ball descended, Zvulun incorporated the entire cast in Act II with the help of choreographer John McFall for a provocative number about pre-war sexual escapades on Berlin nights. Dancers Miriam Golomb, Nicole Johnson, Brandon Nguyen, and Joshua Rackliffe became essential silent characters throughout the show, bringing to light narrative elements within the opera—both blissful and tragic—that could not be expressed with words. —Stephanie Adrian