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REVIEW: At Mass MoCA, Paola Prestini's work-in-progress 'Old Man and the Sea' is deep and layered

Helga Davis performs

Helga Davis, a longtime collaborator and muse of composer Paola Prestini, sang as the narrator in an excerpted recital performance of Prestini's work-in-progress opera "The Old Man and the Sea." Her voice is as advertised: singular and sublime with superhuman range.

NORTH ADAMS — Paola Prestini’s “The Old Man and the Sea” is an opera of layers.

Voices evolve into otherworldly soundscapes as cello and percussion deliver a call-and-response that tugs on our ears like receding waves underfoot. Characters meld into one another as their roles collide and coalesce. Themes cascade together even as they bridge disparate musical motifs.

Sometimes in the in-progress production — which was given an excerpted recital performance at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, March 25 — the opera’s potential remained to be seen. Other times, these layers flowed into a swirling gyre of fate, dreams and emotion worthy of the dark blue depths they plumb.

Of particular note, Helga Davis, Prestini’s muse and frequent collaborator, is as advertised: a sublime, singular vocalist whose superhuman vocal range is matched by her ability to distill characterization into a single stare or smirk or sound.

Prestini’s adaptation, with librettist Royce Vavrek, aims to interpolate Ernest Hemingway’s novella with elements of his own life. The 42 minutes shared Saturday sketched well where the opera is going, and Prestini said about 35 minutes remains to be added.

Much of the plot is familiar: Santiago, an elderly fisherman, is on a monthslong streak of bad luck. Even Manolin, the boy devoted to him, is beholden to a luckier boat. Far out, alone on his skiff, he catches the fish of his life, but by the time he makes port, sharks have destroyed it. By morning, the enormous skeleton is a spiny string of harbor refuse.

As Santiago, baritone Nathan Gunn is tentative, reserved and resigned to the character’s fate. He shows vocal depth in slow, sawing solos that become sea dirges. When he doubles as Hemingway, he comes alive, swaggering and dancing over his words like ice in a tumbler.

Rodolfo Girón floors us as Manolin, his ethereal countertenor a rare gift well used as the boy who, far from being Santiago’s charge, is the old man’s guardian angel.

The opera uses microphones and speakers to lightly manipulate singers’ voices and pipe in “found sound” of ocean waves and the like. (Sound design is by Garth MacAleavey.)

It all seems excessive here. The voices are so staggering that they don’t need modification. The use of amplification, an opera rarity, undermined the singers by muffling their diction, though the acoustics of the room may account for this need.

The accompaniment, Romantic and colorful, evokes the sea far better than a sound effect.

The low register of percussionist Shayna Dunkelman’s marimba becomes the creaking wood of skiffs crowded in the harbor. At other times, the instrument can sound cliched, but Dunkelman’s work on a drum kit and what sounded like a musical saw is precise and arresting. It works in distinct harmony with virtuosic cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, who is also Prestini’s husband.

At Mass MoCA, composer Paola Prestini envisions Hemingway's 'Old Man and The Sea' as an opera

The buzzing chorus becomes dry rope, hot and blistering as it rushes through Santiago’s hands when the fish bites. The high string on Zeigler’s cello becomes a slicing cut in his hand when the fish bucks.

The opera, seven years in the making, will undoubtedly change significantly before its November premiere at Arizona State University. This weeklong residency at Mass MoCA was, as participants described it, a time of play and experimentation.

In its current form, the opera nails the progression from familiar to fever-pitched, not only in the characters but in the voices behind them as well.

The quotidian Spanish lyrics of the “Hail Mary” dissolve into the bustle of Havana before soloist Yvette Keong rises from the eight-member chorus and becomes La Virgen del Cobre, an amalgam of Santiago’s late wife and a Virgin Mary figure of Cuban religious iconography.

Keong’s clear soprano first navigates a rather traditional aria. Gunn tests the limits further before the unique Girón explodes them. By the time we meet Davis, whose voice defies classification along the usual lines, we might be ready for her.

She brings full force to La Mar (the sea) in a climactic, storming scene of predators destroying Santiago’s quarry. She becomes hissing sharks with gnashing teeth and the gong of a listing buoy. Davis knows just when to hold a smoldering cry and when to bite down hard on a consonant.

It becomes a maelstrom as characters converge into Santiago.

Their journey was interrupted regularly by what Prestini calls “pop songs” — separated group numbers that take us out of the story to the world of Hemingway himself.

They can fit perfectly — like the daiquiri recipe that introduces us to Gunn’s suave Hemingway and Davis’ sultry cosmic bartender, low and deep and as warming as good rum.

And they can distract — like the jazzy, artificial “Joltin’ Joe,” which revels in the career statistics of the great Yankee of New York.

Both numbers love numbers (ounces of liquor; home runs hit). It’s an intriguing conceit in the libretto, which throughout is clean and deliberate, taking its cues from Hemingway’s “rich, terse” language, Vavrek said.

They point to a certain obsession.

Taken in sum with the devolving, converging plots and the manic, interrupting “pop songs,” they show us a mind in crisis. In the final number of Saturday’s excerpt, a waltzing Istrian folk song, heavy crashes of drums take us to the fatal conclusion of Hemingway’s struggles, his suicide in 1961. (Chorus baritone Dominik Belavy deserves special note for his performance in the folk song.)

It’s a staggering and immediate return to land, to Earth, bookending with the “Hail Mary” as the melodies again become familiar and somehow ancient.

The sea has calmed, the sun will set and rise again, and the great fish’s skeleton is flotsam in Havana harbor.

OPERA REVIEWWhat: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Paola Prestini, libretto by Royce Vavrek, based on the book by Ernest Hemingway, directed by Karmina Šilec, music direction by Mila Henry, in an excerpted recital performance

With: Helga Davis, Nathan Gunn, Rodolfo Girón and Yvette Keong, accompanied by Jeffrey Zeigler and Shayna Dunkelman

Where: Hunter Center, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Information: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org

Page One Design Editor

Evan Berkowitz joined The Eagle in 2018 after graduating from the University of Maryland. He became page one design editor in 2019.

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