The Boston University Opera Institute began the 17th annual Fringe Festival with Jonathan Dove's spellbinding chamber opera, "Siren Song." The piece, in its entirety, calls for a modest five singers and ten orchestral players and runs just slightly over an hour, yet, in it, Dove has compacted all the tension of a full-length opera.
The orchestral part shifted between atmospheric and interactive under William Lumpkin's supple direction. Dove's masterful orchestration equipped the small ensemble with an impressive dynamic capacity, as well as an atypical color to suit the tale's off-putting theme.
"Siren Song" deals with an innocent young sailor's first run-in with love. Davey, the young sailor, writes a hopeful letter in reply to Diana's ad. The two correspond and Diana cunningly encourages his affections and attachment. Davey makes countless attempts to meet Diana or phone her, but is always greeted, instead, by Jonathan, Diana's brother. As the web of lies and excuses from Jonathan grows, Davey's sexuality falls under suspicion and an investigation begins. Jonathan is, in the end, revealed to be nothing more than a con-artist and Diana, a mere illusion.
This is quite a bizarre tale, but one that fit Dove's lyrical, yet deviant style perfectly. Even without knowing the story, the underpinning orchestral harmonies tinge the flowing vocal lines with a foreboding quality that leave the listener unsettled. Jordan Weatherston sang the naive sailor with remarkable dramatic insight. His sweet timbre carried effectively from pianissimo to fortissimo, which allowed his character moments of aching passion and tender vulnerability.
The humble space of the Lane-Comley Studio was converted into, what seemed like, a dingy window into the lonely labyrinth of Davey's mind. Soprano Kathrine Peck played the part of Davey's siren, Diana, glowingly. She flitted playfully through the space like a weightless apparition, but her voice, though powerful, was too harsh for the smouldering siren and was, at times, difficult to understand.
In contrast to the occult atmosphere between Davey and his chimeric Diana, Benjamin Taylor, in the role of Jonathan, dispersed the whimsical atmosphere with his full, penetrating sound. Taylor infused his character with the necessary confidence for such a shameless con-artist. Between Taylor's suave, manipulative demeanor and Weatherston's pitifully innocence portrayal, that Davey could eat up Jonathan's ludicrous excuses so readily was not as unbelievable as it sounds.
Despite the stereotypes about modern composers, Dove's music is genuinely ravishing and reminiscent, in style, of contemporaries John Adams and Maxwell Davies. "Siren Song" is based on a true story, but, though the libretto tells the story, Dove's music explores the more ruminative realm of the mental trauma of a man who discovers he has been in love with nothing but an abstraction.