The Wheel That Turns: Prestini’s De Deo at VOX 2011

 This past Sunday night, New York City Opera forced attendees to step beyond their comfort zone when locating the last night of VOX 2011 at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The restaurant’s setting was rebellious compared to the traditional opera setting.

Chic and full of ‘punk,’ Le Poisson Rouge’s tight space presented a problem for some audience members, like me and my mother. Luckily, the waitresses listened to our complaints and agreed to let us sit in reserved seats, the ones belonging to – you would never guess – Paola Prestini’s party. On another lucky note, her party didn’t show up on time.

I now want to focus on Prestini’s new piece for VOX, De Deo. This time, Prestini composed the music and the librettist for the opera is Donna DiNovelli.

Unlike Oceanic Verses, where the setting played a major role in connecting characters, De Deo connects characters through a more modern and metaphysical scientific idea — time travel. Prestini said to her audience, “I wanted to combine two time periods together.” The archetype she incorporates is the wheel. Residing inside an old church in Milan, Italy, this wheel, as Prestini enumerated, signifies the movement and return of events to a specific point and encompasses the idea of how events repeat themselves even though times, people and societal ideologies change.

The first act takes place on the outskirts of Milan. The main character, Brooklyn tourist, Pietro, has come to Italy to find out more about his birth mother — who he has never met.

[Listen to De Deo at VOX 2011 here, http://www.wqxr.org/articles/q2-live-concerts/2011/may/15/new-york-city-opera-webcast-vox-second-stage/%5D

He is passing through a deserted piazza where he is approached by a thug who tries coaxing Pietro into following him. During Pietro and the thug’s dialogue, a young local woman, Roma, enters.

Pietro’s vocal part includes a specific operatic compositional element often used when a character enters a monologue. A tenor, Pietro sings a melody played by cello, not the violins. Guiseppi Verdi was known for using this compositional element in his opera, Don Carlos.

The monologue was traditionally sung by a character during a personal revelation. In De Deo, the tenor, the hero of the opera, uses the monologue when he is confronted by the thug in the piazza.

Meanwhile, “The Lost and Found Chorus,” sweep across the piazza disrupting the mugging. Donna and Paola specifically incorporate the chorus as a collective. Traditionally, the chorus is always overlooked but manage to see everything. “The Lost and Found Chorus” sings, “Non vedeta/ Il nostro accoramento/ lasciateci passare/ non ci vedete…” which translate in English to “Let us pass/ clear the way/ Do you only see our widowed clothes?/You don’t see who were are/ Let us pass.”

Pietro and Roma follow this chorus into a church where they come across a large wheel built into the outer wall near the entrance. Both place their hands on the wheel. It spins and then stops. Pietro and Roma find themselves in the year 1888 inside a small church in  Naples. At the feet of a wooden Madonna, our main characters see a young man, a new priest, Matteo.

Matteo is a practicing priest who is secretly having an affair with a woman, Beattrice. Matteo represents a character in conflict. With his beautiful baritone voice, Matteo sings a vocal line that doesn’t match the melody in the string section. The strings also play a series of dissonant and unresolved chords. The lack of resolution signifies how out-of-place Matteo is as a priest.

However, like in 19th century opera, the real hero of the opera is usually the tenor, not a baritone. The lack of heroism in his character is emphasized in the next scene, where his lover, Beattrice, is imprisoned for being pregnant out of wedlock. When Beattrice tries to tell Matteo about his unborn son, Matteo is in the church baptizing infants. In an effort to avoid punishment, Matteo ignores Beattrice and proceeds with his work. Beattrice is soon arrested and placed in jail.

In the next scene, Beattrice is in the Foundling Hospital which is overflowing with infants. She has given birth to her son and is now praying to the Madonna. In this scene, the modern-day and historical characters interact for the first time. While Beattrice sings, “You who held your own boy, your own small boy/ You who soothed/ You who rocked/ You who know what it is like to have one small boy in your arms/ Find where my small boy is,” Roma joins in with the chorus and sings, “How can you help us?/ You only have arms for one son. Let us pray for a many-armed Madonna.”

Beattrice is telling the Madonna how she needs to give her baby away and she is asking the Madonna to return her son to her someday.

The end of this scene carries viewers to the present. Following the chorus and Roma’s prayers, “We pray for all the foundlings/ Lost not found,” an electronic beat box enters. The beat box helps viewers transition back to Pietro’s story.

Pietro touches the wooden wheel again and is transported to several other churches in Italy in different time periods. Pietro eventually learns the wheels in all of these small churches were the places where young mothers left their infants to be found. Mothers attached talismans to their infants so that they could later be found and retrieved. To guard against losing these items, some infants had signs branded on their bodies.

Another transitional musical element is the vocal recording of a chanting priest. The electronic recording of the chanting esoterically represents the physical distancing of the time periods Pietro has just visited. As the wheel takes Pietro closer to the present, the end of the opera approaches.

The final scene is of Pietro in a tattoo parlor in the lower east side in New York City. The beat box enters again, this time to accompany a  rap, also performed by Pietro. He repeats the words, “Brand me/ Brand me, so I can be found/ Make my skin your bible/ Ink my skin with story.” After his rap, Pietro removes his shirt and reveals the audience the tattoo across his bare back. The tattoo spells “Innocenti” — the story of Pietro’s journey to discovering his identity.

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