A month ago I attacked the student opera The Cursed Dauncers for its facile use of medieval setting. The Conversion of Saint Pelagia, the Harlot, by undergraduates David Cole and Ronald Perera deserves to be attacked on the same grounds, but much more harshly. If the first opera had a plot with only half a dramatic issue, this one side-steps cheaply a powerful moral question. If the Daunsers exerted a shallow dramatic impact, this opera is simply not a drama, and its production made it all the more a sham.
The moral status of the prostitute is a natural issue for modern questioning of traditional ethics. Christianity has taken a dramatic position on this issue, giving no quarter to sins brought on by the harlot, yet offering her soul communal redemption. But in by-passing the powerful intellectual and emotional conflicts posed by the Church's stand, Cole and Perera give Saint Pelagia its sorry artistic impotence.
The suffocating triteness and over-weaning propriety of this work result largely from Perera's failure to make his music serve any broad dramatic purposes. The lines sung by Pelagia and the monk Nonnus, her father, maintain a sickly melancholy which seems quite inappropriate to her sins, the supposed point of it all. At the same time, when she appears, surrounded by suitors, it is always to the same cheery dance tune which first accompanied the banter of the two monks. Because Perera's popular melodies and Cole's humor fail to guide the opera's ideas and dramatic progression (as such devices do well in West Side Story), the product is not art.
Really the opera concerns itself only with the monk's search for his daughter. Pelagia's conversion seems off-stage and is dwarfed by the reunion with her father in the final scene--a disgracefully pointless ending for an experienced dramatist like Cole. The libretto's simple-minded images ("today I went wandering as a bird") and pompous archaisms (the story is "for them that have an eye to see") deaden the opera still further. The characters emerge as cute Sunday school paste-ups.
Dee Anne Schoeder made Pelagia even less a harlot, more a whimpering school-girl. Her stooped posture forced her to sing virtually through her nose and to detach each note from the next. Richard Conrad, as Nonnus, showed the best voice, but both his acting and singing were monotonous. His colleague Gerhard (Thomas Walker) lacked vocal control and similarly, Carolyn Kimball's motion between registers was very awkward.
The production and staging stifled the opera's already limited action. A circular riser in the center of the stage grossly limited any movement and all poses became lifelessly statuesque, the acting of an overblown Christmas pageant.
The orchestra, however, was in fair shape under Gerald Bennet. Its intonation was foul, but it showed signs of good discipline.
The Daunsers presented one form of religiosity, that of intellectual pretentiousness; Pelagia displays a quite different one, the Christianity of Main Street. But while the Daunsers had real dramatic power, Pelagia had no such compensation. An intelligent listener will bolt from it in disgust and, if he is a Christian, with near anger.