For a long time, poetic opera was the zipper boot of American arts and letters—an embarrassing reminder that poetry, like footwear, once thought it could be two things at once. But that ’70s feeling appears to be coming back: Dana Gioia, Anne Carson, and Glyn Maxwell have all written librettos of late. None of these works, however, approach the ambition of American Opera Projects’ recent adaptation of Anna Rabinowitz’s 2001 volume, Darkling. (I saw it closing night in New York, and the company hopes to tour soon.) To continue the footwear metaphor, this is a Reebok bump with a GPS device attached to the laces.
The bells and whistles of this opera have something to do with its inspiration. In her poem, Rabinowitz drew from “bits of narrative, and the contents of an old shoebox containing photos and letters,” to try to re-create her ancestors’ travails during the Holocaust. To fill in the gaps of what her language could not imagine, Rabinowitz grafted photographs and letters onto her poem—which is an acrostic, no less—thus creating an elliptical meditation on the failures of memory.
Darkling the opera uses all these elements and more. The performance begins with the players lying on the ground, each holding a portrait, presumably of relatives lost during the Holocaust. Then mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn’s haunting voice comes sifting above the darkened stage, waxing and waning, then disappearing. A voice-over queues the themes—“again and again the narrative howls,” says one voice. “Now I searched for a voice,” says another. “Right or wrong, I have to get it real again,” says a third.
Gradually a narrative develops out of this chaos, about a hasty marriage in Poland followed by a woman’s flight to America on the eve of Hitler’s ascendance to power. Relatives are left behind. Director Michael Comlish seems to know this is a familiar story, for the cast leaps into an almost vaudevillian simper during this period of the show. At one point the story is told with the conventions of an old black-and-white movie. The lead role is played by Jody Sheinbaum, who sings her parts with a perpetual look of alarm and surprise in her eyes, the orchestra worrying her along.
But just when we become wedded to this narrative for better or for worse, it fractures and elegantly reassembles itself—with more text from the poem projected onto the scrim that surrounds the stage at all times, as if to remind us that memory is an act of writing upon what has already happened. Out of this fog emerges the performance’s powerful portrayal of the march to the Final Solution—the ghettos, the cold, the starvation, the forced labor, the gas chambers. Mark Uhlemann’s aria—taken straight from the poem—about wearing the nightmare of this horror like an insufficient coat during the cold, is worth the price of admission and then some.