Composer: João MacDowell
Conductor: Néviton Barros
Olga Bakaki: Death
Nelson Ebo: The Knight Antonius Block
Melanie Ashkar: The Squire Jons
Heejae Kim: The Actor Jof
Alexandra Filipe: The Actress Mia
Shana Grossman: The Witch Tyan
Daniel Klein: The Monk Raval
After a couple of trips to the Metropolitan Opera to attend grand-scale performances in its huge house, I found the perfect way to downsize with the small but feisty International Brazilian Opera Company, which had put together a chamber music concert presenting Act I of The Seventh Seal, an opera adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's classic – and incidentally one of my favorite films ever – by João MacDowell, one of Brazil's most widely eclectic music composers, who had already dabbed into Bergman’s œuvre with an opera adaption of Cries and Whispers.
The intriguing proposition would take place in the pleasantly intimate concert hall of the Scandinavian House, which of course meant that I had to venture into Midtown on a Saturday night after an especially busy day. That was definitely no small sacrifice, but curiosity and optimism prevailed.
The Seventh Seal is unquestionably one of world cinema's most admired films whose most iconic scenes, such as The Knight playing chess with Death on the beach and the final Dance of Death, have been parodied many times over, including by dedicated connoisseurs as disparate as Woody Allen and The Monty Python. Taking place in a medieval Sweden devastated by the plague, featuring strongly symbolic characters, daring theatricality, dark humor, as well as universal themes such as existentialism, obscurantism, religion and death, the original film offers many possibilities to composers intrepid enough to tackle it, and on Saturday night a sizable crowd was on hand to see how the work was coming along.
Memorable characters require outstanding singers, and we sure had them in the international cast that had been gathered, starting with Greek soprano Olga Bakali, whose poised and powerful voice made her a stark, unforgiving and impenetrable Death. She quickly found a worthy adversary in the weary Knight Antonius Block, who was immortalized on the screen by a young Max von Sydow, and on Saturday night was persuasively impersonated by sternly intense Angolan tenor Nelson Ebo.
Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar was a delightfully expressive Squire Jons, the ultimate witty bon vivant, as she skillfully bantered and sparred with The Knight. Korean tenor Heejae Kim and Brazilian soprano Alexandra Filipe formed a totally endearing young couple of artists as The Actor Jof and The Actress Mia. American soprano Shana Grossman was devilishly good as The Witch Tyan, and American bass-baritone Daniel Klein exuded appropriate grim authority as The Monk Raval.
The singers were uniformly talented, each in their own way, but also had the capacity to come together and organically constitute a coherent ensemble. A few of them even got to indulge in special feats such as Death and The Witch belting out commanding flights of lyricism, or Jof and Mia turning their love duet into a bona fide rock song, in which João MacDowell’s certified pop credentials shone brightly. The rhythmical screams of pain uttered by the leader of the procession were as distressing as necessary, and the scene concluded in a rousing choral finale.
The compelling score, which was scaled down to chamber music level for the concert, was immediately engaging. Its multiple colors cleverly conveyed the austere expressionism the film is famous for, the melodies having been directly inspired by the Swedish dialogs from the original script. The ominous dark lines from the cello and the eerily bluesy contributions from the trumpet effectively created a subtly ghostly atmosphere. The percussion provided a wide range of usual and unusual sounds, such as whistling winds and spooky rattling, while the perky banjo added authenticity and light-heartedness to the bohemian episode.
The adventure lasted only over an hour and left us wanting more. Act II should be ready next year, and the full opera in 2018. If Act I is any indication, the result is going to be worth the wait.