Surprisingly Subtle Shades of Grand Guignol for Halloween

Murky piano, distantly tolling bells, ominous low brass and an operatic singer. Sounds like Halloween, right? Today’s release day for David Hertzberg‘s one-act opera The Rose Elf – streaming at Spotify – and that’s how it opens.

That overture rises with an eerie tinkle of piano to a cold stop. The narrative draws on a Hans Christian Andersen fable which reads more like the Brothers Grimm. Samantha Hankey sings the part of the Elf, with Andrew Bogard, Sydney Mancasola and Kirk Dougherty in double roles. Robert Kahn conducts a chamber ensemble behind them with meticulous menace.

Phantasmagorical upper-register piano over hazy strings is a big part of the picture, as are Hankey’s agitated flights to the heights. Stark cello! A doomed, foggy baritone voice! Pregnant pauses! Are we having fun yet, Lurch?

What distinguishes this from classical heavy metal cliche is Hertzberg’s enigmatic sense of melody. This music lingers and doesn’t move around much despite numerous dynamic shifts beneath the singers’ full-blown angst: it’s the High Romantic from a somewhat calmer five thousand feet. Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Charles Gounod are points of comparison, as are Stravinsky and Prokofiev at their most predictably carnivalesque. Euntaek Kim, the ensemble’s emphatic, dynamic pianist makes the icily glimmering, marionettish parts count. And percussionist Bradley Loudis also excels in a richly suspenseful, colorful performance.