First things first: Roger Rudenstein’s “Grace,” which premiered last Friday at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, is not the first opera written to address the AIDS pandemic, as his press materials and interviews with local media would have you think. Joseph Dalton, at NYC’s “Estate Project for Artists with AIDS,” has for years been compiling a comprehensive list of musical works about HIV/AIDS, and some of the earliest entries in the operatic vein date from the late 1980’s.
1988, incidentally, is the year in which the Edward Langlois-John Carmichael play, “Grace,” on which Rudenstein’s opera is based, premiered in New Hampshire. Alternating between a stark 1980’s hospital room and the French Court of Louis XV, “Grace” follows the last moments of Lewis, a young gay man dying of AIDS-related causes.
The premise sounds enticing enough: a new company (“Opera on the Edge”) debuts a new opera by a relatively unknown composer (Rudenstein, the company’s founder and producer), shedding new musical light on the AIDS pandemic. Little was the audience prepared for the unfolding horror at the Cambridge Y last Friday evening. (Though the smart audience members left at intermission)
In “Grace,” our hero Lewis (tenor Ryan Turner in a peculiar star turn) is a bitchy, bitter AIDS victim that has resigned himself to death, and spends most of the opera’s evening tossing in his silk-swathed sick bed (designed by Mr. Langlois), or flinging cliché-laced one-liners (“you could never accept that I was different!”) at his one-dimensional mother (Catherine) and father (Andy), played by courageous singers Deborah Rentz-Moore and Nikolas Nackley, though both are entirely too young to be believable in the roles. Catherine, incidentally, shares a French kiss with her dying son, and Andy, though disgusted by his son’s pronouncement of a foot-long black dildo as his “last will and testament,” is apparently a closeted homosexual, reflecting in Act II that “no one will ever know all of me.”
Sammy – a barky John Whittlesey – is Lewis’ male nurse (who ponders “what straight man would want to massage a dying fairy’s ass?/You should be used to it”), and visits from time to time to give him shots (“Bare your bum/Face the wall/I’ve seen it all”), which send Lewis into drug-induced hallucinations of a motley cast of characters from 18th-century France. Madame DuBarry (the vocally distinguished soprano Karyl Ryczek, who should waste not a moment returning to her exciting career on the concert stage) hovers menacingly as Lewis’ impending “Angel of Death” (shades of Jessica Lange in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”), and, as the flamboyant Duc de Croy, baritone Donald Wilkinson swings his pelvis in time with the music, and convincingly simulates cunnilingus on Ms. Moore, while Mr. Turner mounts Wilkinson from behind and bursts into Irving Berlin’s “Heaven/I’m in Heaven.”
None of these sexual antics are particularly new to the operatic stage, or to Boston audiences: just last summer we witnessed Janna Baty’s devastating portrayal of the Duchess of Argyll in Thomas Ades’ sensational “Powder Her Face,” cunnilingus and all. What is surprising is the way in which the bathroom humor and old-school gay repartee of the Carmichael-Langlois play, when set by Rudenstein, falls so flatly in this staging by Billy Butler.
Carmichael, Langlois and Rudenstein have certainly failed the LGBT and AIDS communities in their mounting of “Grace.” In the nearly two decades since the Carmichael-Langlois stage version of “Grace” made its premiere, not only has the face of AIDS changed dramatically, but the entire landscape of AIDS theatre has matured as well. Just when we were certain that the HIV/AIDS positive-community was escaping the ghost of victimization, “Grace” squeaks into town like the rusty dinosaur 1980’s AIDS drama that it is.
If Rudenstein’s primary goal as a composer is to produce, as his program biography states, “operas [that are] fun to produce, fun to sing, fun to play and a great deal of fun to watch and hear,” then his company’s debut production has unequivocally failed his mission. Rudenstein’s musical language would hardly have been radical in the 1940’s, and his orchestration sounds vaguely like Benjamin Britten filtered through Samuel Barber’s pen. Rudenstein has termed his music “neo-romantic,” and it just might be, but one searched in vain for an individual stamp on his vocal or instrumental writing. The tunes were so harmless that not one stayed in the memory upon leaving the theatre.
One really felt for the entirely professional orchestra and singers plucked from Emmanuel Music (Conductor Craig Smith, wisely, skipped this gig). Timothy Steele bravely dragged the Emmanuel players (most of whom looked bored) through Rudenstein’s shapeless score.
At the opera’s inevitable conclusion – Lewis dies, of course – the singers break into full polyphonic majesty on text like “Love is grace: the Alpha and the Omega,” then come to the lip of the stage, singing full-throttle. Suddenly, the music stops.
“Spare me,” the cast mutters, and the opera closes with a timpani flourish. Spare me, indeed.
by Opera on the Edge
Playing through June 26th at the Cambridge Family YMCA Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA. Presented by Opera on the Edge. www.operaguy.com