On Thursday, October 25, a heartfelt applause rang out after the last flutterings of Toshio Hosokawa’s monodrama The Raven drifted away in the ample acoustics of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. For almost an hour the Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and United Instruments of Lucilin had held the audience captivated, under the baton of the young Japanese conductor Kentaro Kawase, a friend of Hosokawa’s. With wonderful precision and subtlety he steered the musicians through this multilayered work.
Last year Hellekant drew Hosokawa’s attention when she sang in his opera Matsukaze, based on the Japanese Noh-play about two sisters who fall in love with the same man, and pine away after he’s vanished. Struck by her intense interpretation, Hosokawa decided to compose a monodrama for Hellekant, whose versatile voice appeared to be perfectly suited to bring across the brooding drama in Edgar Allan Poe’s breakthrough poem The Raven. The theme is related to that of Matsukaze, for in The Raven also a lost love is mourned, the narrator getting lost in a world of fantasies, ghosts, and a speaking bird—The Raven. This pitch-black animal seems to mock his grief.
Hosokawa himself points out the similarities with Noh-theatre, in which animated nature, ghosts, and the spiritual world play an important part. The roles of women are played by men, but by having a mezzo-soprano interpret the part of the narrator, he purposely reverses the usual order, to broaden the theme to feelings of loss in general.
In The Raven Hosokawa brings across the meaning of the text very intensely – sometimes having Hellekant only whisper the already very musical and alliterating verses, at other times making her scream, while the musicians create pandemonium. The sudden appearance of the ominous bird comes as a huge shock, tearing apart the apparent quiet of almost inaudible rufflings and rippling of the twelve instruments we heard before.
The eerie beast only quips one word: Nevermore – it is clear the narrator will never see his beloved Lenore again. Hosokawa successfully suggests the happenings may all take place in the troubled spirit of the narrator, who is tossing and turning in bed, and imagining things not really there. The music is full of suspense, sweet murmurings being disrupted by sudden though intensely lyrical instrumental solos.
During our introductory talk Charlotte Hellekant mentioned that she takes the person to have been caught in a loop of grief, not even wanting to find relief. This idea seems to be supported by Hosokawa: Hellekant mainly speaks or whispers, but on occasion bursts into almost baroque-like recitative and even proper coloratura.
The general atmosphere is subdued and fearful. After the final words—”And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted nevermore!”—the musicians revert to their gentle ripplings of the beginning: the suffering will start anew.
In this concert version, Hellekant’s compelling performance and colorful voice—with only the slightest hint of a rasp—was matched by the superb and concentrated playing of United Instruments of Lucilin. With The Raven Hosokawa created a truly gripping work, that will hopefully make it to the stage more often: up to now it only got one scenic performance, at the Grand Théatre in Luxemburg in June 2012.
Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music. She’s writing a biography of Reinbert de Leeuw, due for publication in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @tdrks