Tarik O’Regan’s one-act chamber opera, The Heart of Darkness, had its American première this past weekend under the literal and figurative batons of Opera Parallèle. The literal baton is that of Conductor and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, and the figurative one that of Creative and Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel, both founders and the driving visionary forces behind the company.

Thomas Glenn (Harlequin) © Steve di Bartolomeo
Thomas Glenn (Harlequin)
© Steve di Bartolomeo

In a mere eight years, Opera Parallèle has become San Francisco’s answer to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in London: a place for experimental chamber opera that is notable for its imaginative and compelling productions. But where the Linbury has its home in the small and wonderfully flexible theater space in the basement of the Covent Garden Opera House, Opera Parallèle chooses appropriate venues from among those available across the city. The Heart of Darkness appeared at Z Space in Project Artaud.

O’Regan was inspired to tackle the Conrad novella by his love of the film Apocalypse Now, but rather than use the book as a springboard for commentary on contemporary political exploitation, as the film does, he returns to the 19th century original. O’Regan opted for Conrad’s compact narrative in his opera, mirroring that compression in a musical setting for 14 instruments, including harp, celesta, guitar, strings, woodwinds and a wide array of percussion. Significant perhaps was O’Regan’s choice of Tom Phillips as the librettist.

Phillips is perhaps best known for his ongoing repurposing of the obscure Victorian book, The Human Document, into his own multi-form artwork, The Humument. The original 1966 piece was notable for its deletions of text, covered by various pictorial abstractions: the text left behind revealed only the book’s most pithy and most existentially charged fragments. Phillips, in other words, is a master of condensation. He has the ultimate advantage in the opera of working with Conrad’s beautiful writing, highlighting lines such as “the company come to tease treasure out of the bowels of the land” and Marlowe’s final verdict on Kurz: “His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad.” Language charged in its brevity.

The opera’s story moves quickly, its structure is a slideshow of short scenes. It begins by moving from a boat on the Thames to a room, back to the boat, to company offices and back to the boat on the Thames. Each scene conveys only a few lines of script. All that is said in the first scene, for example, is “A remarkable man.” The music provides the underlying emotional timbre and controls the scenic pace.

Opera Parallèle's production visuals enhance the move from scene to scene, adding to the music’s flow. A large screen fills the back of the stage, and across it projections splash colorful images of Ohio-based illustrator Matt Kish, taken from his book interpreting The Heart of Darkness, which offers one illustration for each page of the novella. Kish’s work is similar to that of many graphic novel artists: highly stylized with geometric and simplified forms; the colors are bright and primary with heavy black outlines. The imagery has the simplicity of cartoons, and also their instantaneous impact. Interestingly, the artwork was similar to Phillips' graphic reworkings of the pages in The Humument.

Kish’s images were enlarged and transformed, to their theatrical advantage, by Frédéric O. Boulay, projection designer, and David Murakami, media designer. The very use of projected color adds not simply a filmic quality but also vibrancy to the art. Transitions from the black-and-white images of the Thames to the lush green and yellow of the Congo were created by circles of images that would appear, expand and multiply across the surface of the screen. The effect was like raindrops falling on the surface of the world, transforming it from the dull white of fog and industry into saturated colors of fecund leaf and flower. Even so, the circles retained a geometric simplicity in keeping with the original illustrations. My hat goes off to the media guys for retaining the integrity of the images during their metamorphoses into stage media.

Michael Belle, Jonathan Smucker, Isaiah Bell and Daniel Cilli © Steve di Bartolomeo
Michael Belle, Jonathan Smucker, Isaiah Bell and Daniel Cilli
© Steve di Bartolomeo
With seven men – four tenors, two baritones, and one bass-baritone – the vocal palette in O’Regan’s opera inhabited the lower, darker vocal registers, even when led by the fresh and engaging sound of tenor Isaiah Bell. Bell as Marlow, the storyteller of piece, sang in most scenes. Tenor Thomas Glenn sang the enviable and fervent role of Harlequin, the slightly mad Russian sailor who has become Kurtz’ devotee. Tenors Michael Belle and Jonathan Smucker and baritones Daniel Cilli and Aleksey Bagdanov sang multiple roles. There was some especially haunting ensemble work.

Sopranos Heidi Moss sang the role of Kurtz’ fiancée and Shawnette Sulker vocalized as the River Woman, giving a wordless sound to Africa and its people. Both dashed a lyric purity into O’Regan’s soundscape.

Most gripping was Philip Skinner’s Kurtz. Set in the bass-baritone’s lowest reaches, Kurtz begins singing his first single line “I am glad” as a drone that seems to swell out of the earth and its subterranean heart. From this moment on we understand more completely the darkness that began insubstantially as sounds flickering like shadows within the composition and finds its truest and most substantial presence in the mental meanderings of the mad Kurtz, with his hunger for ivory and his “immense plans”.

O’Regan’s fine music was complemented by the Opera Parallèle’s thoughtful production and a superb set of musicians under Nicole Paiement’s magical baton. How lucky we are!