On Sunday, November 6th at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, led by Grant Gershon, premiered a suite from what is Matrix composer Don Davis's most ambitious work to date: Río de Sangre. This opera-in-progress, with a libretto by Kate Gale, takes place in an unnamed Latin American republic during the aftermath of a coup d'etat, where its new leader carries his misguided attempts to break the cycle of oppression.
The suite consists not of a summary of the plot (though one is able to piece together a semblance of the story), but rather a collection of showpieces for the 5 main characters, spread out over two movements. Davis follows the recent mold of John Adams operas more than of the leitmotif heavy Wagnerian school, though Wagner is certainly an influence (how can one write an opera and not be after all?). The Wagnerian grand romanticism comes in full force with the 120 person choir, which represents the minds and thoughts of principal characters (with the occasional spout of wisdom).
This constant chromatic shifting of major chords forms a kind of ground work for the opera, as Davis weaves very tonal minimalistic woodwind, celesta, and light string textures as a bed for the chromatic, almost Schoenbergian melodies of his main characters. It is here where Davis truly shines, as his ability to write for voice is well beyond anything we might have thought from his film scores. There's a great sense of control as the performers effortlessly weave through arias and duets.
However, I shouldn't downplay the more minimalistic influences in the work. There is a great moment, when the character of Delacruz comes to the realization of his daughter's kidnapping and he stares into space while his thoughts of regret and failure to act bounce around in his head. This effect is achieved by employing a similar technique Davis accomplished with the high strings in the Matrix. This reflective idea of the strings ricocheting in layer upon layer of each other is put to wonderful effect in the choir.
In addition to the tonal backdrops, and chromatic melodies, there's plenty to love for those who crave Davis's more bombastic dissonant scores. Towards the end of the suite, swelling chords, running winds, staccato cellos, and Bartok pizzicatos lead the way to the sudden, almost unexpected, conclusion.
The only drawback to the suite is that there seems to be several payoff moments without the lead up, so it's hard to appreciate certain sections without the context of which they will appear in the completed work. Having said that, the opera is shaping up nicely and has the potential to be a "must hear" work for the concert hall and stage. All we can do now is wait.
For more information on the opera, visit the official website at http://www.riodesangre.com/