The Priestess of Morphine is a new short opera with music by Rosśa Crean to a libretto by Aiden K. Feltkamp. It deals, allusively, with the life of German writer Gertrud Günther who, under the name of Marie-Madeleine was a best selling author of erotic fiction and poetry. She was also Jewish, a lesbian and an opium addict. She died rather mysteriously at a sanatorium in Katzenelnbogen in 1944; her work having been denounced as degenerate and banned by the Nazis.
The libretto is reflective and as much a meditation on opium as a biography; perhaps more so. It’s actually quite addictive. It uses two sopranos; a more staid and straightforward Gertrud and a more poppified Marie-Madeleine. It’s structured as a prelude and six movements of which, to me, the fifth; The Harvest Song, feels pivotal. It’s an a cappella section for both singers and it interweaves the life cycle of the poppy with the idea that though “Nazis are real and they are here” ideas (and love?) will outlive them. It places considerable demands on the singers with extended technique and really high passages. It really is hypnotic.
In some ways it’s very odd that I should single out this passage because much of what I like in the rest of the piece is Crean’s instrumental writing. They use the tiny ensemble of violin, cello and vibraphone (with a brief appearance of the composer on waterphone) to create a very wide range of colours and sound pictures. The strings are used as percussion instruments and in various other non-standard ways, as well as lyrically. The tempi and tonalities variy from very relaxed and meditative to a kind of driven minimalism (more Adams than Glass). The mood can be light, almost happy, or deeply brooding. It’s good stuff.
The cast and band; Jessie Lyons as Gertrud, Katherine Bruton as Marie-Madeleine, Alex Giger (violin), Stephen Hudson (cello), Ben Zucker (vibraphone) with the composer conducting cope admirably with everything that Crean throws at them. The recording is good too. It’s clear and well balanced and the text is clearly audible. It was made at Flashpoint Chicago in 2019 with the engineering and mixing done by Yuri Lysoivanov.
I think this is a worthwhile way to spend 45 minutes or so listening to new music. The Priestess of Morphine CD will be released by Navona Records on March 12th. The link will take you to the “about” page but there’s tons more background info on the “notes” page.