Loneliness, love and death dominated the performances of “The Masque of Edgar Allan Poe” at the Williams Center for the Arts last week.
The opera, which was based partially on Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” was paired with a rather sinister interpretation of the Brother Grimm’s “The Juniper Tree.”
In this provocative tale, the Red Death is not a sickness or plague, but rather a character who is the personification of loneliness. The character is drawn to a party that the two main characters are attending. One of the main characters is an obsessive English professor who has analyzed and researched Poe’s life so intensely that he believes himself to be Poe. The other character is a woman who is stuck at the party after being abandoned by her friends. The hostess of the party is a socially awkward woman who, despite being the hostess of the party, is unable to form any meaningful emotional attachments with her guests.
Over the course of the play, the professor and the woman slowly begin to develop a relationship. The play reflected the couple’s shyness and inability to interact normally with other people. By the end of the party, they ended up falling in love. At the climax of the play, the Red Death strikes and kills them both. However, the two are reunited in the afterlife.
The music was by assistant professor of music Kirk O’Riordan while the libretto was by professor of English Lee Upton. The performance started off with a talk about the inspiration behind the play and the creation of this modern twist. The play was sponsored by O’Riordan.
The performance of “The Juniper Tree” opened with the orchestra immediately set the mood by playing dissonant glissandos and bursting crescendos filled with tension that left a foreboding feeling in the air — before the stage was even lit.
Adolescents dressed in yellow tights, flapping wings in an array of primary colors, burst onto the stage, and the haunting melody they sang picked up right where the orchestra left off.
In the show, the narrative begins with a woman desperately wishing to have a child under the branches of the Juniper tree. She dies shortly after in childbirth and is survived by a little boy and a grieving husband, who buries her bones under the tree. The husband later remarries and has another child, a daughter. The stepmother resents the little boy due to his resemblance to his dead mother, and because he will later inherit the family fortune.
In a strong but shrill voice, the stepmother grapples with her complex feelings. She is bathed in red light, foreshadowing the bloodshed that will soon come. The stepmother realizes that he is only a child, but hates the boy because he looks so much like his dead mother and she wants her own spawn to inherit the father’s fortune.
In a scene not unlike a plot point right out of Snow White, the stepmother offers the boy an apple. As the boy reaches in the box to get the apple, she slams the box shut and beheads him. In order to cover up the deplorable crime, she seats his body at a table and ties his head to the rest of his body with a red handkerchief.
The daughter then enters, mistakenly thinking that her brother is still alive, and questions why he refuses to answer her. The stepmother suggests she ask again and, if he doesn’t respond, “box his ears in.” When the daughter boxes his ears in, the head falls off, and she immediately thinks she killed her brother. The daughter grieves and buries her brother’s bones under the Juniper tree. Meanwhile, her mother cuts up the rest of his body and serves it in a stew to the family.
A bird takes flight out of this Juniper tree, a reincarnation of the little boy, singing a song of sinister lyrics covered by a happy melody. It begins, “Mama killed me. Papa ate me.” Because of the song’s beautiful sound, a goldsmith gifts the bird a gold chain, the shoemaker offers red shoes and the millers present a millstone. The gold chain falls to the father, the shoes go to the sister and the show ends with a millstone falling on the stepmother and killing her.
Although the dark subject matter was anticipated because it was based off a Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, the story was made all the more haunting by the accompanying orchestra that entered at the most tension-filled times and the powerful vocalists who were able to convey emotion and strength in their solos.