You know what’s easy to say? Nothing.
These words, heard early in the Atlanta Opera’s devastatingly powerful new production of Jake Heggie’s “Out of Darkness: Two Remain,” outline some of the profound challenges faced by the show’s two central characters. The deeply moving work, based on the stories and recollections of two Holocaust survivors, has had workshop and concert performances in various forms, but the Atlanta Opera production, helmed by the company’s Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, represents the first full professional production.
The two compact, distinct acts of “Out of Darkness” hit hard and cut deep. Even by the standards of tragic opera, it’s heavy and harrowing drama. Overall, the outstanding, collaborative production is a high benchmark for the company, representing fantastic new engagement with important, groundbreaking contemporary work.
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The first act gives us the story of Krystyna Zywulska (soprano Maria Kanyova), based on the real author of the firsthand account “I Survived Auschwitz.” Born Sonia Landau, she changes her name to escape the Warsaw ghetto and to work with the resistance, but is captured by the Nazis. There, she writes lyrics to folk songs (an especially touching and resonant part of the performance) to lift her and the other prisoners’ spirits. But her survival is complicated: She begins to work in the Effektenkammer, where arriving prisoners’ personal belongings are taken from them, and in one of the evening’s most heart-rending scenes, in order to maintain her new identity as a non-Jew, she must pretend not to recognize a terrified childhood friend newly arrived at Auschwitz.
The recollected scenes make for devastating drama, beautifully performed by Kanyova, and also by Atlanta Opera Studio Artist Bryn Holdsworth, who plays the younger Krystyna in memories (the vocal combination of the two singers playing the same character at different ages I found particularly intriguing and effective, especially when they sang together).
In the second act, we meet the aging gay German Jew Gad Beck (Atlanta actor and Theatrical Outfit Artistic Director Tom Key), who is visited by the young ghost of Manfred Lewin (baritone Ben Edquist), his poet lover from when they were both teenagers. Though Beck has barely spoken about his memories of that time, the ghost’s appearance recalls for him the freedom of Weimar-era Berlin and the pain of persecution and loss that followed.
Gene Scheer’s libretto is so effective and insightful the evening could potentially work as pure theater, with no music at all, but Heggie’s beautiful score gives the words and actions a haunting sense of meditative interiority: We move dreamily between past and present, between anger and regret and a sense of release, and the music effectively guides and underscores these transitions. The sound is often fittingly somber — the show is overarched by a recurring, lilting minor key melody, often sung a cappella — but there are actually a number of moods depicted. Some recollections have an intriguingly jazzy edge to them, and the appealing “Golden Years,” beautifully rendered by Edquist, in which Manfred recalls the naughty and glamorous life of Berlin nightlife in the ’20s and ’30s, wouldn’t sound at all out of place in a Broadway musical.
Scenic designer Christopher Dills’ set is simple but visually dense and adaptable; its several levels, entryways and pockets of space allow for action and memories to unfold in any number of places, a potential which Zvulun and choreographer John McFall utilize well throughout.
One of the most impressive things about Zvulun’s accomplishment here is the way he marshals the prodigious talents of so many Atlanta-based artists — such as the dancers or actor Tom Key in a primarily speaking role or McFall, former Atlanta Ballet artistic director, as choreographer — to collaborate on guiding the new work into its first full production. Overall, it’s nothing at all like what we might have seen from the company before Zvulun’s arrival, so the new production is extraordinary and exciting on a number of levels.
Our culture tends to place so much value on speaking out, speaking up, finding a voice (and these are indeed positive values), but we seldom consider the true emotional costs, challenges and risks of speaking up. When the subject is an experience as horrific as the Holocaust, “speaking up” isn’t as easy, or as easily redemptive, as all that, and one of the things that “Out of Darkness” touches on so beautifully and painfully is the difficult path both characters navigate in contemplating giving voice to their experiences. Key and Kanyova capture and convey that deep sense of existential confusion and anger that their characters experience.
“Out of Darkness” is by no means an easy evening, but it is necessary and timely: Its people, images and stories stay with you.
Atlanta Opera presents Jake Heggie’s “Out of Darkness: Two Remain”
7:30 p.m. April 12-15. $50. The Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.
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