Desolation Row: Soprano, Dal Niente give searing advocacy to Hersch’s operatic meditation on death

Sun Jan 21, 2018 at 4:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Soprano Ah Young Hong was the soloist in Michael Hersch's "On the Threshold of Winter" Saturday night at the Biograph Theater.
Soprano Ah Young Hong was the soloist in Michael Hersch’s “On the Threshold of Winter” Saturday night at the Biograph Theater.

Not long after he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1996, Marin Sorescu was diagnosed with liver cancer. The Romanian poet spent the last five weeks of his life in the hospital, working on what would be his final poems, often writing several in a day, up until his death.

These extraordinary poems–stark, strange, and fantastical–were collected and later translated into English as The Bridge.

Composer Michael Hersch discovered Sorescu’s poems at a similarly tragic time in his life when his best friend had been diagnosed with cancer. While helping her through her illness, Hersch received his own cancer diagnosis. Following surgeries and treatment the composer recovered; his friend did not.

Those tragic events form the foundation and background for Hersch’s On the Threshold of Winter, which was presented by Dal Niente in its STAGED series Saturday night at the Biograph Victory Gardens Theater.

In this operatic monodrama for soprano and chamber ensemble, which premiered in 2012, Hersch has fashioned his own libretto, drawing from Sorescu’s poems.

As one might expect, On the Threshold of Winter is not exactly a lighthearted frolic. Hersch’s work is cast in an idiom of almost unrelieved darkness, searing emotional intensity and godless desolation. Winterreise seems like a cheerful sleigh ride by comparison.

Yet the taut power and craft of Hersch’s driven, uncompromising music–spanning well over two hours with one merciful intermission—are undeniable. The music for the mixed eight-player ensemble–placed on the right side of the stage, and conducted with laserlike focus by Michael Lewanski–is dominantly jagged, driving and brutal. Hersch’s writing emphasizes the dry, harsh sonorities, often exploiting the high extremes of the instruments to jarring, strident effect–a sonic reflection of the protagonist’s physical pain.

In brief spoken remarks before the performance, Hersch said he waited until he had found the right soprano for this demanding work before he would sanction the first performance of On the Threshold of Winter.

Clearly he found her in Ah Young Hong, who was the soloist in the two previous rounds of performances of Hersch’s monodrama and repeated that role in this Chicago premiere.

Clad in a white, hospital-like gown, the petite soprano was a fearless presence, wielding her unamplified, bell-like voice like a weaponized instrument. Hong delivered a tour de force vocal performance in this almost unfathomably difficult music—attacking the dizzying high notes with surprising power,  racing through the rapid-fire desperation of agitated sections, and bringing a numbed, toneless sprechstimme and contralto-like darkness to the low tessitura. Her crystal-clear enunciation of the translated English texts made the projected surtitles largely irrelevant.

Yet in addition to the daunting vocal demands, of Hersch’s score, Hong brought blazing intensity to the crucial theatrical element as well. There was always a plaintive human vulnerability to her presence, whether she was sobbing, screaming, moaning in pain or pulling down the long, diaphanous curtains, and wrapping herself in them like a shroud.

Hong also directed the performance for the first time, “a logical progression” Hersch said, in what is essentially a one-woman show.

Judging by photos of the over-the-top Hammer Films visuals of the premiere, Hong’s more minimalist staging was all gain. Having the singer share the stage with the Dal Niente ensemble put the focus squarely on her protagonist and Hersch’s music where it belonged.

Maxwell Bowman’s subtly atmospheric projections and lighting enhanced and complemented Hong’s performance without distracting from the action.

Just as the opera’s unremitting despair has one consider walking into traffic on Lincoln Avenue on the way out and ending it all, there are fleeting moments of balm and a touching transcendence. Near the end of the long evening, at the moment of death (“So this is it? The hour?”) the soloist achieves an acceptance and even some degree of solace, as the music quiets and fades away to tolling bells like a threnody.

On the Threshold of Winter is not for the faint of heart, and is a tough work to experience. But for all its hard edges and stark perspective, it is ultimately an intensely human and moving examination of mortality–providing as much of an unblinking gaze into the abyss as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment