Mizzy Mazzoli’s latest opera The Listeners is now available on the OperaVision channel on Youtube. It’s a Den Norske Opera production recorded in Oslo a couple of months ago and it’s very interesting. There are several short trailers etc on the channel that you can use to get an idea of what it’s about and what it sounds like.
The libretto is by Royce Vavrek and it deals with the idea that in some parts of the world (Windsor ON is one) some people hear a strange persistent noise (The Hum) that most people can’t hear, usually with highly deleterious effects on their mental health. “Explanations” range from it being purely imaginary to extra-terrestrials, to emanations from cell towers to government mind control experiments and more.
In The Listeners we are somewhere in the US (maybe Arizona) where we meet a school teacher, Claire Devon, who hears the noise. Her husband and daughter don’t believe her and she spends a lot of the night communing with the neighbourhood coyote who she is convinced hears it too. So does one of the high school kids she teaches. Together they join a “Community Action Group” that bills itself as like minded people looking for the causeof The Hum. In fact it’s a highly manipulative cult run by one Howard Bard. He has a very effective modus operandi based on taped “confessions”, blackmail, new age mumbo jumbo and really vicious emotional manipulation. Things really start to go down hill when he chooses Claire to replace his deputy and paramour Angela. There’s violence. The cult is blown apart but the ending is oddly ambiguous.
It’s a Royce Vavrek libretto so it’s well crafted with lots of dramatic tension and ambiguity and a really chilling portrayal of how to run a cult. It’s about two hours long and is never dull. Mazzooli’s music works very well with it. “The Hum” is only occasionally directly depicted by the orchestra but the minimalist undertones of the score keep up the idea of it. It’s colourful and engaging though I don’t think there any hummable melodies.
Lileana Blain-Cruz’ production is pretty straightforward but effective. The Devon and Bard houses plus the schoolroom are efficiently provided by a rotating set and projected video of the filmed confessions Bard obtains from his victims are projected as transitions. There’s also a very funny scene where bard, his deputy and Claire are live streaming their schtick and we see a phone projected above the stage with “viewer comments” ranging from “some bad ass cult shit” to “I’m driving down from LA to join you”. The portrayal of the coyote by a female dancer is pretty cute too.
There are some really good performances. American soprano Nicole Heaston is excellent as Claire Devon. She’s a most convincing actress and has a clear, pleasant soprano. There aren’t any real “show off” opportunities but she makes the most of the material she’s got. British baritone Simon Neal is super creepy as Howard Bard. Mezzo Tone Kummervold is equally excellent as the awful, deluded Angela switching from a very bright tone early on to some interesting darker colours when she realizes that Bard is dumping her. It’s a big cast and the other roles; Claire’s family, the school kids, cult members and the usual vacuous female news reporter, are well done, mostly by the look of it by members of the house ensemble.
I think a much larger orchestra is in use here compared to other Mazzoli works I’ve heard, plus electronics. The house orchestra sounds good and conductor Ilan Volkov maintains structure and clarity even when the textures get pretty dense.
The filming is fine though it took me a while to figure out what was happening with the confessions. FWIW I think we are seeing projections that were also seen in the house. Video is Blu-ray quality and the sound is excellent though, obviously, only stereo.
All in all an interesting piece with Mazzoli and Vavrek both on form.