Opera Album Review: A Major New Opera that the Met Has Ignored — Tobias Picker’s “Awakenings”

By Ralph P. Locke

This world-premiere recording lets us hear one of the most effective recent operas, based on the famous book by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Awakenings, Music by Tobias Picker. Libretto by Aryeh Lev Stollman.

Joyce El-Khoury (Rose), Adrienne Danrich (Miriam), César Delgado (Mr. Rodriguez), Andrew Morstein (Leonard Lev), Katharine Goeldner (Iris Lev), Jarrett Porter (Dr. Oliver Sacks), Keith Klein (Dr. Podsnap).

Odyssey Opera, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, cond. Gil Rose.

BMOPsound 1094 [2 CDs] 104 minutes.

To purchase or try any track, click here.

Tobias Picker (b. 1954) is one of America’s most prominent and successful composers. Early on, he was an improvising pianist for the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance; he received compositional instruction from Wuorinen and Babbitt. He has won many awards, including a Guggenheim. Over a dozen works have been released on recordings and much praised by critics, including a highly effective piano concerto that bears the title Keys to the City (two recordings of this!), the orchestral work The Encantadas (likewise two recordings), and three operas: Emmeline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Thérèse Raquin (based on the Zola novel). I attended a staged performance of another opera, An American Tragedy (based on the century-old Theodore Dreiser novel), at Glimmerglass and found it approachable and involving, despite a wildly careening plot.

None of this prepared me for the immense effectiveness of Awakenings, an opera that received its first production at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2022 and now reaches listeners through a recording (with a few of the same singers and excellent new ones), thanks to the tireless efforts of Odyssey Opera and its imaginative and enterprising founder-conductor Gil Rose.

Awakenings is freely based on the best-selling 1973 memoir by Dr. Oliver Sacks, in which he recounts his attempts at reviving patients who had long-term encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness) by administering large doses of L-DOPA. The book was also the basis of a lightly fictionalized and highly acclaimed 1990 film, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The opera’s libretto was fashioned by Picker’s husband Aryeh Lev Stollman, who is a neuroradiologist and author of several novels, one of which (The Far Euphrates) has received multiple awards and has been translated into five languages.

Briefly, Dr. Sacks, at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, proposes giving the experimental medicine to the patients, who have been more or less catatonic since the encephalitis epidemic of 1919-30. Many of them respond well at first: walking and talking, and showing that they had heard some of what was said around them during their years of being seemingly unconscious.

But the relief and even happiness does not always last. Miriam begins to have problems again with walking. She is also distressed when she meets her daughter and granddaughter, who have come to visit her for the first time. At a party celebrating a newspaper story about the experiment’s success, Rose grows frantic when the dance music shifts from a waltz to something more up-tempo. Leonard Lev, after going for joyful long walks for the first time in decades, fantasizes about being the long-awaited savior of the world.

Dr. Podsnap, the hospital’s stuffy medical chief, now berates Sacks for experimenting on patients and creating “a complete abomination.” (Ray Hassard, the layout editor at American Record Guide, has helpfully pointed out to me that Podsnap’s name may perhaps allude to a pompous character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.) This sends Sacks into an agonized flashback, recalling his mother’s harsh words when, as a teenager, he admitted his homosexual leanings: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”

Cesar Delgado, Andrew Morstein, and Jarrett Porter in the 2023 Odyssey Opera/Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s staging of Awakenings. Photo: Kathy Wittman/ Ball Square Films

Along the way, Leonard fantasizes that he and the male nurse, Mr. Rodriguez, love each other, and Rodriguez, who is indeed homosexual, tries in vain to get Sacks to respond to what comes close to being an avowal of love. And, at the end, Rose holds onto her fantasy about her one-time fiancé: “The man I love [from the 1920s] has come back to me.” The opera closes with reflections by the entire cast, phrased in fairytale language: “Slumber fell once more upon the kingdom.”

All of this is presented in music that moves at a swift pace, with something new happening every minute or two. I don’t recall encountering a better opera libretto in recent years, though there have been several other fine ones, such as Tazewell Thompson’s for Jeanine Tesori’s Blue, Cerise Lim Jacobs’s for Scott Wheeler’s Naga, and Mark Campbell’s for Eric Nathan’s Some Favored Nook.

Picker’s music is often somewhat harsh and challenging. Yet, time and again, he also invokes musical styles that have been well established for centuries and that suit the atmosphere of the particular scene or the psychology of the character singing. One recurrent device is the use of passionate melodies played or sung in parallel thirds or sixths, recalling numerous love duets from Mozart to Gounod, Bizet, and Puccini. At other times, the libretto and music evoke what scholars call “diegetic” numbers (that is: moments when the characters in the opera themselves are making music and/or hearing it). At such moments, I was sometimes reminded of onstage songs and “now the band plays” moments in Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, and John Adams’s Nixon in China.

This use of “diegetic” music is most intense and effective in Act 2, scene 2, after a triumphant newspaper story has come out, complete with photos of Dr. Sacks and some of the patients. The scene begins with a celebration in the ward’s big dayroom where a waltz dominates, understood to be coming from a phonograph (though heard in the orchestra and marked by dissonant twists and turns). One patient then puts a different record on: a peppy up-tempo dance (perhaps evoking a foxtrot). Leonard Lev then interrupts the gaiety — because he is beginning to regress — by announcing, in stentorian manner: “This world is filled with devils … / But I am still rising from the Ashes of Defeat / To the Glory of Greatness!” His declamatory melody evokes Lutheran chorale tunes by using notes of equal length, mainly in conjunct (scalar) motion. In fact, the opening notes are those of the long-familiar “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,” words that mean, literally, “O Head [of Jesus], Full of Blood and Wounds.” (Leonard further declares: “This polluted world must know me / So I can save it /… I don’t hallucinate! / I see what others can’t.”)

People who know their music history will also notice that Leonard’s version of the quasi-chorale tune (later intoned by the chorus) features a prominent augmented-fourth interval on the word “devils” — no doubt because that interval was often considered the “diabolus in musica” during the Renaissance and Baroque and therefore forbidden in both monophonic and polyphonic music. A further bit of richness: the tune being evoked was originally composed by Hans Leo Hassler to the words “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret” (My Mind Has Become Confused), and Leonard’s outcry marks, of course, the very moment when his thinking begins to go off the rails (because he has asked the nurse, Mr. Rodriguez, to dance with him but the latter continues to dance with Rose). I wonder whether there are other rich interconnections in this savvily put-together work that may surface as one studies it more.

The performers are immensely communicative, though I urge listeners to keep consulting the libretto: some scenes (and CD tracks) have flashbacks or dream moments that can make it hard to figure out who is singing to whom, and in what context. The synopsis, though clear, could have been more detailed and should have included track numbers. Fortunately, there are some vivid photos from the Boston production to help one imagine what is going on.

Adrienne Danrich and Joyce El-Khoury in the 2023 Odyssey Opera/Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2023 staging of Awakenings. Photo: Kathy Wittman/ Ball Square Films

The best-known performer here is Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury (born in Lebanon), whose voice, in the heartbreaking role of Rose, soars and floats majestically. (I praised her disc of French arias, entitled “Echo” (in American Record Guide, March/April 2018.) Mezzo Adrienne Danrich makes an indelible impression as Rose’s fellow patient Miriam, especially when she gets to use her gutsy lower register. Both of them make every word crystal-clear, as do baritone Jarrett Porter and bass Keith Klein in the two doctor roles. Porter remains eloquent whether he is singing high or softly. Visions of the great American opera star Sherrill Milnes!

Andrew Morstein steals the show repeatedly as the delusional Leonard Lev. The strength and intensity of his sustained high-register singing come as a surprise after a number of brief conversational exchanges with the character’s mother. I hope to hear this astonishing tenor in other equally substantial roles. Gil Rose conducts the orchestra (essentially the same as that of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) with appropriate energy and variety, and the recorded sound is well managed.

The booklet comes with helpful essays by the composer, the librettist, and James Robinson (longtime artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis), plus the libretto, which I often did not need to look at, especially when only one character was singing at a time. In passages where many people sing at once (such as when Dr. Podsnap, adding his voice to the din and distress, urges the orderlies to end the dance party and “take them all to their rooms”), the printed libretto eased my confusion. I suppose that, in a live performance, supertitles will clarify matters the same way. And I say “will” because Awakenings is clearly an opera that is going to have legs, as one says in the theater world. Catch it now on CD (or streaming) and, not too long from now, on stage.

Including, I would propose, the Met! YouTube has a full video of the Odyssey Opera production. And also a video (unstaged) of Susanna Phillips, a leading soprano from the Met, singing Rose’s aria, “I do not need much sleep,” with the redoubtable Ursula Oppens at the piano. How about it, Mr. Gelb?: give her or Nicole Cabell, say, a whack at the whole role, and let Rod Gilfry or Christopher Maltman loose as the brilliant (but not perfect) Oliver Sacks!

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is part of the editorial team of Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal, an open-access source that includes contributions by performers (soprano Elly Ameling) as well as noted scholars (Robert M. Marshall, Peter Bloom) and is read around the world. The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.

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