CD Review/Original Cast Opera: INVISIBLE CITIES (written by Christopher Cerrone)

by Tony Frankel on November 22, 2014

in CD-DVD

Post image for CD Review/Original Cast Opera: INVISIBLE CITIES (written by Christopher Cerrone)

IT’S ONLY INVISIBLE IF YOU KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN

The first time I heard Christopher Cerrone’s opera Invisible Cities, based on Italo Calvino’s 1972 fictional novel, was during The Industry’s interactive theatrical experience at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Along with about 200 other patrons, I donned state-of-the-art headphones and followed singers and dancers as they performed throughout the renovated landmark while the throng of bemused train customers observed the proceedings as well. It was a major occasion and a helluva lot of fun, but ultimately both the opera and the event distracted from each other. I felt that the opera could play in any venue, and any music could have accompanied the event.

Christopher CerroneYet I remember being haunted by Cerrone’s score, his first opera, even as the recitative-like libretto refused to stick. Thankfully, The Industry Records has been established and just released Invisible Cities as a digital download (500 limited-edition CDs are also available). Turns out the best way to hear this fascinating score is in the dark.

Along with Marco Polo, Kublai Khan is the main character of Calvino’s novel, which is more or less a conversation between the two–even though they do not speak the same language. Khan is concerned about his empire’s decline and hopes that Polo’s vivid descriptions of cities (real and imagined) will offer hope for a brighter tomorrow. There is little dialogue and the book consists of mostly prose poems describing 55 cities. Cerrone’s libretto for his 7-scene opera, liberally lifted from Calvino’s text (translated by William Weaver), describes but a few. In all honesty, the occasionally indiscernible libretto (“I speak and speak, but the listener retains only what he is expecting”) is not why I encourage owning a copy.

Postcard image from CD of Christopher Cerrone's INVISIBLE CITIES

This CD is all about the score, which is almost Wagnerian in the way that it builds and then pulls back. It’s a creepy soundscape, seeming as if it were scored for a slo-mo thriller. The eight singers’ lines rarely have a noticeable melody, which adds to the ethereal spookiness, evoking a sort of science fiction medieval wasteland inhabited by wailing, mourning monastics. Its effectiveness is in its evocativeness, aided by astounding orchestrations using percussion (including found objects), two pianos (one prepared), trombone, violin, viola, cello, harp, clarinet, flute, and horn, all tightly led by Marc Lowenstein. The beginning of scene 3 (track 4) contains spidery, plucked strings and low dissonant blasts accompanied by a cacophony of barely audible voices speaking in foreign languages, which made me wonder if Henri Dutilleaux were composing from a Star Wars canteen.

INVISIBLE CITIES production photo by Dana Ross

While the mood remains eternally plaintive and dystopian, Cerrone’s cerebral, compelling, enigmatic work elevates beyond the pretentiousness and repetitiveness of so much modern music, which validates its being a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. The best way to experience the enjoyably relentless dread that this score arouses would be on headphones in the pitch black—possibly in an altered state—letting your imagination do the rest. Headphones will also help you appreciate the consummate mixing, mastering, and engineering by producer Nick Tipp.

For $45, the limited-edition version is a sort of memory box, which contains the CD and 8 loose postcards but lacks a libretto (which wouldn’t aid your experience anyway). This gorgeous box ain’t no keepsake (although it would be good for your stash). I suggest the $9.99 digital album, which includes unlimited streaming.

For good or bad, Invisible Cities might even be this generation’s answer to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Prepare to reside in a landscape that is equal parts ferocious, unsettling, and bewitching. Listen to this just before bed at your own peril.

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Invisible Cities
The Industry Records
playing time 63:29
available as a digital download and limited-edition CD
to purchase, visit www.invisiblecitiesopera.com
for more info, visit The Industry

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