Review: Atlanta Opera’s “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” makes for emotionally powerful drama

by Mark Gresham | 11 APR 2018

Ben Edquist as Manfred Lewin and Tom Key as Gad Beck. [photo: Jeff Roffman]

Ben Edquist as Manfred Lewin and Tom Key as Gad Beck. [photo: Jeff Roffman]

The Atlanta Opera is halfway through their latest Discovery Series production, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain,” by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. I attended on Friday night, the second performance of the production’s eight-show run. Four performances remain, this coming Thursday through Sunday, April 12 through 15. Presented in collaboration with Theatrical Outfit, the performances take place in that company’s home venue, the 200 seat Balzer Theater at Herren’s.

“Out of Darkness: Two Remain” is comprised of two 45-minute acts, each telling the story of an aging Holocaust survivor, each a kind of “ghost story” where the unresolved memories of their experiences and persons who died continue to haunt them.

Act I tells the story of poet and lyricist Krystyna Zywulska (soprano Maria Kanyova), who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner, rather than for being a Jew – a fact which he successfully hid from her Nazi captors. She is confronted by memories of her of her younger self who survived Auschwitz, nicknamed Krysia (soprano Bryn Holdsworth), and friends in the camp who did not: Zosia and Edka (mezzo-sopranos Elise Quagliata and Gina Perregrino), and the late-arriving Mariola (soprano Jasmine Habersham), a Jewish woman who immediately recognizes Krysia as childhood friend from Łódź, and calls her by her real name, Sonia Landau, in front of Wala, a “kapo” – a prisoner functionary (Funktionshäftling) assigned by the SS to supervise and control other prisoners (a brief role also portrayed by Quagliata).

The encounter with Mariola creates immediate peril for Krysia, in which she must deny her former identity and hr childhood friend. It’s the ghost of Mariola who haunts Krystyna the most, and who is the first character to sing, wordlessly, at the beginning of the opera. In the end, Krystyna reaffirms that she is no longer Sonia Landau, but Krystyna Zywulska – and that is why she still lives to see another day.

The aging Krystyna Zywulska and Krysia, the ghost of her younger self (sopranos Maria Kanyova and Bryn Holdsworth). [photo: Jeff Roffman]

The aging Krystyna Zywulska and Krysia, the ghost of her younger self (sopranos Maria Kanyova and Bryn Holdsworth). [photo: Jeff Roffman]

Act II is the account of German homosexual Gad Beck (actor Tom Key), whose first true love was the poet Manfred Lewin (baritone Ben Edquist), executed in Auschwitz at age 19 along with his entire family. Although he keeps a book of Manfred’s poems in a side table drawer, Gad tries but cannot forget, and is visited one night by the ghost of his young lover, and must reconcile himself to accepting that love and his memories of Manfred. He does as he and the ghost of Manfred embrace in a close dance as the lights fade.

That seemed like it would be the end of the opera, but a Finale follows, involving the whole cast of both acts, that comes across less as epilogue than as anthem of defiance and solidarity. Key, who has only spoken dialogue all night, is the first to break into song, delivered directly to the audience, reprising a tune and text from the first act, in which the rest of he cast quickly join him:

Take off your striped clothes, kick off your clogs.
Stand with me, hold your shaved head high.
The song of freedom upon our lips will never, never die.

Although two separate stories, with protagonists that are unconnected except by Auschwitz and the Holocaust, there is much synergy between the two Acts. That synergy becomes fused in the opera’s final, collective anthem and it does something unusual for 21st-century opera: it risks being remembered by the audience as they depart.

Whether emulating folk-song and dance of Ashkenazic Jews, or the decadent atmosphere of a Berlin nightclub, or eerily adapting waltzes by Chopin and Johann Strauss into the sonic thread, Heggie’s music colors the drama and amplifies it. The orchestra is a sextet – essentially a “Pierrot ensemble” of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, with the addition of a contrabass. The Atlanta Opera Orchestra principal players, ensconced in a narrow passageway behind a scrim at the back of the stage, performed skillfully under the baton of conductor Joseph Mechavich.

Four dancers (Miriam Golumb, Nicole Johnson, Brandon Nguyen and Joshua Rackliffe) round out the cast, portraying multiple silent characters important to the drama as well as executing the evocative choreography by John McFall. Producing director Tomer Zvulun balanced the creative forces onstage, emphasizing the opera’s strong theatrical elements, which suited the Balzer Theater’s space and Christopher Dills’ pragmatic scenic design, drawing from the complete cast of players a solid ensemble performance.

On his website, composer Heggie describes this Atlanta Opera production as the “premiere of revised opera and official professional opera company world premiere.” Like many operas, it has taken time for the work to evolve to this stage. “Out of Darkness” had its beginnings as three separate theatrical song cycles: “For a Look and a Touch” (2007), “Another Sunrise” (2012) and “Farewell, Auschwitz (2013).As none of these alone made for a complete theatrical evening, Heggie and Scheer worked them over to create the first “Out of Darkness” opera.

That first version was commissioned by the concert series Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2016 at the Nordstrom Recital Hall in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, directed by Erich Parce and conducted by Joseph Mechavich. Since then revisions have been made, with a trial run of four performances only two months ago February 8 through 11 by Peabody Chamber Opera of Baltimore’s John Hopkins University. Subsequent further revisions were made just after; vocal scores used by the Atlanta Opera bear the date “2/18/2018.” In the process, the title of the new version was expanded to “Out of Darkness: Two Remain.”

In its current form, “Out of Darkness: Two Remain” proved an effective, well-crafted, emotionally complex evening of agitprop music theater that makes its poignant point to those interested and willing to be moved by its deeply heartfelt message.

# # #