“And what is so rare as a day in June? Well I would say a sweet evening in June, outside, on the lawn of the park of the Opéra Théâtre de Saint Louis, enjoying a picnic and wine. It was really beautiful. We had all come to see the world premiere of Alarm clocks. This is a work by composer Tobias Picker and librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman, based on the book by Oliver Sacks.
OTSL is a world-class opera “destination” and is renowned for its productions of new American operas as well as classics. Commissioned by the Opera Theater Saint Louis alarm clocks for its 2020 season, but that production was delayed due to the pandemic. Now it’s coming to the beautiful theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center.
Oliver Sacks was a neurologist – an Oxford alum who spent his career in America. He was a man with great empathy and a deep curiosity for the mysteries of the human brain, of which he was a keen observer. His brilliant essays help us understand these mysteries. He was a central figure in the growing acceptance of “neuro-diversity” around the world – the concept that neurological abnormalities are differences, not necessarily defects. Sacks died in 2015 at the age of eighty-two.
Dr. Sacks’ 1973 book, alarm clocksdescribes his experience with twenty patients at a Bronx hospital who had survived the 1916 pandemic lethargic encephalitis. They had been more or less asleep for decades. Sacks read about a new drug, L-dopa, and thought it might help these patients. He obtained permission to experiment with L-dopa on these twenty people. At first, it seemed like a remarkable success. Many of these patients, who had been nearly comatose, came back to life. They talked, they walked, they even danced! But soon after, strange side effects appeared and the patients eventually relapsed into their old “sleep” conditions.
Dr. Sacks’ book has been adapted into a film, a ballet (by composer Picker) and a one-act play (by Harold Pinter). Her study of the blind Molly Sweeny became a play by Brian Friel.
Many stars were clearly aligned to allow the birth of this new opera. Tobias Picker, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, was a patient and friend of Dr. Sacks. Librettist Aryeh Stollman was also friends with Sacks. Stollman is a neuro-radiologist and is Picker’s husband. The creators therefore have a deep understanding of this history.
But that’s not quite a story.
We enter to see a scene of disconcerting simplicity. It’s in a hospital. Six large glass panels on wheels serve as partitions, and are moved with agility as needed to provide the patient rooms, the day room, a botanical garden, etc Nurses take care of patients in wheelchairs. In the back we have some institutional radiators. Above and behind is a large projection screen, which will display the outside world: trees, the sky, a climatron. The images sometimes move strangely as befits the confusion in the minds of these afflicted people.
Much of the production team is exactly the same as for EmmelineTobias Picker’s opera presented here four years ago:
Scenography Alan Moyer
Suits James Schuette
Lighting Christopher Ackerlind
Video projection Greg Emetaz
They work superbly together.
Librettist Stollman wisely chooses to focus on just three of the twenty patients – Rose, Miriam and Leonard – who will adjust quite differently to their awakening.
Dr. Sacks is sung by baritone Jarrett Porter, who expresses the doctor’s deep empathy – even love – for his patients. Porter has a beautiful, rich voice, but sometimes, at the low end of his range, his lyrics struggle with a slightly too loud and busy orchestra. I found myself relying on surtitles.
The medical director, boss, and nemesis of Dr. Sack, is Dr. Podsnap. (Like Dickensian!) This role is wonderfully sung by bass-baritone David Pittsinger. It emanates from power and authority.
Marc Molomot plays a patient, Leonard, who was torn from life at ten and is now middle-aged. His aging mother comes to read to him every day. Molomot has a beautiful, soft and clear tenor voice – and we can understand every word. Leonard awakens to disturbing new teenage desires that seem most awkward – even embarrassing – in this middle-aged (and, we find, gay) man. Molomot handles these cravings with courage.
Another patient, Miriam, is played by soprano Adrienne Danrich. She gives a moving performance as Miriam meets her lost daughter and granddaughter, who were told she was dead. Miriam gives in to self-pity, becoming tearful as she laments “all those wasted years”, but Ms. Danrich sings it all beautifully. His duet with Rose – “What’s the time for us who choose to live in our dreams?” – is simply beautiful!
For me, the most endearing character is Rose, sung by Susannah Phillips. Mrs Phillips wrung our hearts as Birdie in Regina four years ago, and she wins us over again as the gently optimistic Rose. Of all these patients, it is Rose who most clearly expresses our emotions. She almost always dances dreaming of her love from long ago. Rose receives some of the most listenable songs, and her warm, flowing voice makes for memorable musical moments.
Andres Acosta brings an incredibly beautiful tenor voice to the role of Rodriguez, a nurse. Her duet with Leonard is another highlight of the evening.
The very beautiful voice of Katherine Goeldner and her fine dramatic qualities enrich the role of Iris, Leonard’s mother.
Great chorus work is done throughout, from the sweet opening, where they evoke the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, through some catchy, even chaotic scenes, and the conclusion, which takes us back to the sweet tale. fairies. Congratulations to conductor Kevin J. Miller.
The music is varied, strong and interesting, although there is little real melody. There is often a haunting intensity in the lower part of the orchestra as the vocals float above. Much seems atonal, and very similar to recitative–small repetition, almost a rhyme. A waltz or two are welcome when they come. Conductor Robert Kalb directs the members of the Orchester symphonique de Saint-Louis in a refined and dynamic performance.
But is alarm clocks really a story – a dramatic story?
All in all, it feels more like a case story than a drama. The librettist wisely limits our primary focus to three patients; he wisely allows them to interact with other patients (which is missing from Dr. Sacks’ book). Yet despite everything, none of these patients do anything that affects their fate. things happen at their. They sleep, they wake up, they rejoice, they are afraid, they go back to sleep. There’s pain along the way, but they don’t do anything dramatic choice. You never wonder what these patients are going to do do.
But is alarm clocks really about the patients? Or is it Dr. Sacks, the creators’ beloved friend? He made a choice, and his conscience ached when that choice went wrong. But Picker and Stollman are not content with that. They add a sad little love triangle: Leonard is in love with Mr. Rodriguez, the nurse. Rodriguez is smitten with Dr. Sacks. And bags. . . ? Not yet on the market. It’s almost Chekhovian: everyone is in love with the wrong person.
Of course, none of this is in the book. However, Oliver Sacks was a gay man known for his shyness. He certainly never wanted to be a notoriously gay and shy man. His reluctance to go public with his erotic predilection lasted until he mentioned this predilection in an autobiography a month before his death. Would he have been comfortable seeing that reluctance was the very public central theme of an opera from his book about suffering patients? And would he have made the tragic sleep of these patients a metaphor for his reluctance? Maybe not.
The romantic thing felt very “stuck” to me.
But alarm clocks is given a very beautiful staging at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. Strange, exciting, often beautiful music, and wonderful voices. It is played until June 24.
For more information visit Opera-STL.org
(Photos by Eric Woolsey)