The first night having taken place on the outskirts of town in the 'Coal Mine Bathrooms', I was curious as to where I'd land on the second night of New Opera Days Ostrava. This time I found myself at Cooltour, a more conventional theater above a coffeeshop/bookstore complete with outdoor patio from which the smell of barbecue occasionally wafted. As I took my seat I overheard somebody saying “Those are real guys up there!” and did a double-take as I glanced at the curtainless stage.

Alma Samimi (Lethé) © New Opera Days Ostrava
Alma Samimi (Lethé)
© New Opera Days Ostrava
I realized that the figures frozen in the sand were not, in fact, statues, but were four of the five characters of the opera we were about to hear. Commissioned by NODO 2016, Idin Samimi Mofakham's At the Waters of Lethe is an English language opera of about an hour in duration, presented in its première under the direction and stage design of Ewelina Grzechnik and Marta Grądzka. Lethe, the Greek goddess of justice, converses with Carlo Gesualdo, Robert Schumann and Alfred Schnittke in a mash-up of Greek mythology and Western music history.

 There were some shaky moments as the four men slowly came to life, pulling themselves from the sand yet still looking somewhat like statues, what with their white face paint and faded suits and costumes. The physical stumbling was fitting within the context; musically there was a bit of disjunct although the four men were meant to be singing in unison. Their voices sounded scattered and unsure during the expository phrases  – “what a melancholy story it is” and so on – of Martyna Kosecka's convolutedly witty libretto.

As Gesualdo, bass Adrian Rosas was the most convincing both musically and dramatically. His voice was rich and forceful without ever becoming brash or overpowering. As Schumann, tenor Abdolreza Rostamian waded through an aria in which all the regulars (Clara, Brahms) were mentioned, sounding vaguely muddled and under-rehearsed. Arash Roozbehi's Alfred Schnittke was slightly more fluid, delivering his lines with a wryness that was fitting. Countertenor Karol Bartosiński's Mordake was the only character who felt out of place and even unnecessary, a fictional addition to the cast who was not made any more endearing by Mr Bartosinski's somewhat hapless rendering.

Karol Bartosiński (Mordake) © New Opera Days Ostrava
Karol Bartosiński (Mordake)
© New Opera Days Ostrava

As Lethé, Alma Samimi similarly left much to be desired. Her voice was much too amplified considering the small theater, with her voice coming across as strident and harsh. Furthermore, and although admittedly I might have been one of the few audience members to recognize this, it must be mentioned that Ms Samimi's English pronunciation was sorely underprepared. Words spoken or sung, without sense or meaning behind them, dissolved into a string of garbled sounds leaving the listener uninvested and frustrated. Her acting was similarly awkward and divorced from a strong sense of timing or purpose.

Arash Roozbehi (Alfred Schnittke), Adrian Rosas (Carlo Gesualdo) and Karol Bartosiński (Mordake) © New Opera Days Ostrava
Arash Roozbehi (Alfred Schnittke), Adrian Rosas (Carlo Gesualdo) and Karol Bartosiński (Mordake)
© New Opera Days Ostrava

Despite the vocal mishaps, Mr Mofakham's score shows a strong potential to be better-received in future performances. The Ostravská Banda, conducted by Rolf Gupta, as well as the live electronics by Martyna Kosecka, were for the most part more precise and dramatically effective than the action taking place on stage. The opening vocals, droned out like Gregorian chant by the four male characters, contrasted with the crackling electronics and high, sharp glisses from the violin. These quick bursts and spurts of instrumental sound escalated into a chaotic mélange as the chamber ensemble roiled with the fullness and electrifying tension of a symphony orchestra. Later in the opera, the musicians' eerie, whispery textures compounded the rumbling sturm and drang of the electronic track; during the final scene, a blaring trumpet and thundering timpani provided the dramatic coherence that the crescendoing vocal lines were lacking. As Lethe spoke her final words, the few props on stage – a fallen chandelier, a bowl half-full of water – glowed yellow and red as everything else grew dark and the Ostravská Banda trotted out their final decrescendoing phrases. Despite a bumpy première, Mr Mofakham and Ms Kosecka have created a thought-provoking opera that left me hoping for future incarnations.