To Hell and Back (2006)

Libretto by Gene Scheer & Music by Jake Heggie

To Hell and Back
"To Hell and Back" has a hell of a lot of good music. As the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, launched into the work, I sat bolt upright … Heggie’s work punches in the stomach with a brief, intense introduction that you instantly want to hear again. Those opening measures are to be treasured – Bartok meets Gluck, Shostakovich merges with Bernstein – and yet, it’s all distinctively Heggie. Heggie’s synthesis of Bernstein’s Broadway voice, Sondheimesque sprechstimme, smooth harmonic progressions, and gripping orchestration, offers an important contribution to contemporary music.
In Heggie’s piece, never have word settings been so vividly naturalistic, and with orchestral writing that creates the world of the characters so completely that staging isn’t necessary.
… a striking performance in which all of the various elements fell convincingly into place, serving the powerful narrative superbly. Patti LuPone is formidable as Anne, never trying to be more than the Broadway belter we remember from “Evita” and so many other shows. Isabel Bayrakdarian as Stephanie is every bit her equal, singing in a large, focused and beautifully colored dramatic soprano. The contrast of styles, approaches, and deliveries is startling, but both are so compelling in their narratives, vocally and theatrically, that the contrast sorts itself out and we hear not two different voices, but youth appealing to age, innocence to experience, sufferer to survivor. Heggie’s score is stunning, tonal, sweetly dissonant, and much of it written in a distinctively American style. “To Hell and Back” may be his strongest and most convincing writing to date. The libretto by Gene Scheer is equally potent, a tight and compelling story, straightforward and eloquent and spare. The orchestra, led by Nicholas McGegan, unites score and singers in a performance that is musically charged, perfectly balanced and entirely engaged. The warm sound of period instruments carries the story admirably.
Heggie’s “To Hell and Back,” which revisits the myth of Persephone in a modern-day setting, was the radiant centerpiece of the [Philharmonia Baroque] orchestra’s program … the one-act opera is the organization’s first commissioned work … It was a bold experiment, and at Tuesday’s vibrant semi-staged performance, the results were magnificent. Heggie has given the orchestra a decidedly contemporary 40-minute score, one with echoes of Britten, Barber, Bernstein and Copland. “To Hell and Back” will come as a surprise to those who think modern opera isn’t sufficiently tuneful. Heggie has given the score some of his most arresting orchestral writing … And, as always, Heggie writes beautifully for the voice. High points, incorporating [Gene] Scheer’s eloquent prose, include a tender duet, a potent cabaret number for Anne, and a penetrating, grief-drenched aria for Stephanie. [Nicholas] McGegan and the orchestra gave the score a fervent first performance, and the soloists rose to the occasion admirably.
The chamber piece is intriguing, evocative, highly original and curiously involving, one I would welcome hearing again. The wonder here is that the entire piece jells despite the many dissimilarities. Heggie writes in an accessible, consonant style, sympathetic to the voice, while fluent in emotional nuances and outbursts. [Heggie’s] operatic experience enables him to spark dramatic situations effectively. Heggie builds crescendos to scenes of high agitation beautifully, tackling the varied styles with a fluency of rare dispatch.
[a] resourceful and often eloquent score. [Heggie] rises vividly to the challenges of using the old instruments in new but idiomatic ways, including an impressive version of a French overture that alludes to historical models while keeping its own dramatic profile and establishing a set of identifiable motifs that return tellingly throughout the piece. Stephanie’s main aria boasts a vibrancy and eloquence that are all the more touching for being a blend of melodic styles. McGegan led a vivacious rendition, moving nimbly from one phrase of the work to the next and underlining Heggie’s most arresting inventions.