Anthony Roth Costanzo, Stacey Tappan; Boston Children’s Chorus; White Snake Projects Chorus & Orchestra/Carolyn Kuan
New World NW80814 90:14 mins (2 discs)
Part-human and part-snake, nagas are semi-divine beings of cultural significance across South and Southeast Asia. The word may also denote a wandering ascetic, and both meanings resonate in this two-act opera premiered in Boston in 2016.
A Young Monk renounces his wife and worldly existence in his quest for spiritual enlightenment. Observing his tormented departure, Madame White Snake resolves to make him her own against the protestations of Xiao Qing (Green Snake), whose unrequited love for her has led him to abandon human form.
The resulting, morally ambiguous tangle of emotions and identity is depicted in lush post-Romantic music with piquant echoes of Britten and Barber – and nods to The Magic Flute. Deftly conducted by Carolyn Kuan, the Boston Children’s Chorus and White Snake Projects Chorus and Orchestra support an able and committed cast. Most striking is the nagas’ vivid depiction through coloratura soprano (Stacey Tappan) and countertenor (Anthony Roth Costanzo), alongside lyrical saxophone and oboe, percussion and electric guitar. Less clear is the opera’s shape, its oratorio-like choruses and static arias tending to impede dramatic drive. But the characters are engaging, and their good-versus-evil struggle shown in subtle shades of grey.