Vocalist - Soprano
Compelling soprano carries 'Proserpina'
I've never seen a singer command the stage the way Heather Buck does in "Proserpina" at the Spoleto Festival USA. I've never seen an opera that demands it so.

Wolfgang Rihm's new work - premiered last year in his native Germany, where he's one of the leading composers - is essentially a one-woman show. Its heroine is the mythological goddess of the underworld, swept there against her will to be the wife of its ruler, Pluto.

From the moment she appears until the final fade-out about 70 minutes later, Proserpina is onstage and in the spotlight.

She rages against her fate. She recalls the idyllic life she led before her abduction. She calls out to her parents. She mourns her life with an unloving husband - who occasionally appears, but never sings or speaks. She finally takes a soothing bite from a pomegranate, not realizing that it ties her to the underworld for eternity.

Keeping this up for an hour would be taxing enough if Proserpina were singing tuneful Verdi or Puccini. The story as told by Rihm - in music that's stark and not rooted in traditional harmony - is even tougher on the performer. Proserpina's vocal line is usually stark and sometimes wildly disjunct, leaping between extremes high and low.

It potently describes the rage and desolation that are Proserpina's two prime emotions. But it doesn't coalesce into what most singers or listeners would regard as melodies. Just learning it must be an enormous task.

Soprano Buck is the master of her fate, though. She sang with luster, conviction and finesse Sunday at the American premiere. She put over the fire of the goddess' outbursts and the sighing vulnerability of her laments.

Buck conveyed all that in her eyes, face and bearing, too. Every minute she was onstage, she was a compelling figure. Obviously stage director Ken Rus Schmoll and conductor John Kennedy have marshaled her skills well.

The small orchestra belied its modest numbers through its vigor and vividness - especially when Rihm called on the sepulchral tones of the bass instruments.

When the chorus of fates appeared near the end, the women of the Westminster Choir were one of the creepiest groups I've ever beheld onstage: With many of them wearing what could've been frumpy white confirmation dresses, they looked like they had suffered arrested development as 14-year-olds.

No wonder they horrified Proserpina. Marsha Ginsberg's set - inspired by the crumbling interior of Charleston's Aiken-Rhett mansion, the festival said - drove home the barrenness of the goddess' plight.

I suspect that such a committed performance is the only thing that can put "Proserpina" over. For all its flashes of power and atmosphere, the music has no overall momentum to bind all that together. Between that and the music's aural complexity, it would probably fall flat without the likes of Buck.

Charlotte Observer
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