The Rose Elf
Samantha Hankey, Sydney Mancasola, Kirk Dougherty, Andrew Bogard (voices); Euntaek Kim (piano), Julian Schwarz (cello), et al
Swan Studios MM20044 53:13 mins
Like his award-winning The Wake World, David Hertzberg’s The Rose Elf explores languorous netherworlds of desire and death; cruelty, beauty and putrescence. Around two-thirds the earlier opera’s length, the libretto is a florid adaption of what he describes as Andersen’s ‘antic’ fairytale, which charts the murder of a girl’s beloved by her Brother and its aftermath through the eyes of a rose-dwelling Elf. The score is exquisitely wrought, with a shimmering, sumptuously dissonant harmonic palette strongly reminiscent of Schreker – and the cast of four plus nine-piece ensemble perform it with seductive intensity under conductor Robert Kahn. As a vehicle for Samantha Hankey’s rich, clear mezzo the title role is particularly choice.
Yet the line between erotic malaise and dramatic inertia is a fine one, and the gothic horror has a sadistic edge that proves uncomfortable. In Andersen’s story, the Elf marshals bees and flowers to exact revenge on the girl’s behalf. Here, however, there is no such reckoning as he sings her into a sleep-death that sums up her lack of agency throughout. Opera is full of tortured victims of course – and not all of them are female. But the passivity of this one feels grimly necrotic.