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By You That Made Me, Frankenstein — Philadelphia Opera Collective

frankstein == alternativeThe context in which Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” was written is almost as fascinating as the groundbreaking novel itself.

Then Mary Godwin, the daughter of two cultural lights of the turn of the 19th century, Shelley  spent a summer by Lake Geneva with the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, and a friend of Byron’s, a young physician, William Polidori. Percy Shelley was married at the time of this excursion, and he and Mary traveled as lovers who wed following the first Mrs. Shelley’s death. Polidori had been Byron’s travel companion for a while when they all inhabited a rented villa in 1816, when Mary was age 18, a mature, womanly age for the period.

Weather did not favor the travelers. For three solid days, it rained over Lake Geneva, spoiling the men’s usual activity of sailing and fishing. To occupy themselves, the group read aloud gory stories from a book they found that chronicled murders, ghost tales, and encounters with the supernatural. This led to a challenge. The group determined that each of its individual members should write a story to entertain the others, the story to be in the style of those they had been reading.

This is all chronicled in Mary Shelley’s introduction to “Frankenstein,” which was published in 1818 and caused a stir for several reasons, its authorship by a woman being the least of them. “Frankenstein” was the first work of science fiction told in a high literary style, more like that of Goethe and the Germans than that of the English novelist. It also comingled images and ideas written of in the poems of Percy Shelley, Byron, and their contemporaries, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, with the scientific studies taking place in Mary’s day. One of the great controversies of the time was whether a movement called “Vitalism,” adherents of which professed that life can be reanimated, had any scientific or realistic basis. Medical and electric experiments were conducted to see if the dead could be brought back to life. Brilliant men like Dr. William Lawrence and Humphry Davy discredited Vitalism, but the passion for it continued to reign, and Mary Shelley would have been aware of all of this. Most likely, her father, William Godwin, took her to lectures at the Royal Society where such matters were discussed and even demonstrated.

“Frankenstein” was a work of imagination based on genuine issues of the time. Shelley’s genius was to envision what  might happen if Vitalism was valid and to set her story down in compelling prose that is a far different narrative from the one in which we’re familiar from James Whale films or other popular appearances of Victor Frankenstein and his “creature.”

Josh Hartman, Reese Revak, Brenna Geffers, and members of the Philadelphia Opera Collective have ripe imaginations, too. Geffers, as librettist, and Hartman and Revak, as composers, conceived what daily life might have been like in the Lake Geneva villa Mary Shelley shared with her friends. In their opera, “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein,” they depict the storywriting challenge and Mary’s response to it while introducing “The Monster” in a manner more in keeping with Shelley’s depiction than with Whale’s.

Not that Mary would be offended or disturbed by having Frankenstein’s “creature” represented in a way she did not intend. Theater renditions of “Frankenstein” that corrupted her original composition began appearing during her lifetime, and Mary attended and applauded each of them, and not only because of the royalties they engendered.

“By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” is most interested in that group of geniuses by the lake.

Just as both Shelleys and Byron took liberties with literary form, the Opera Collective group takes liberties with those assembled at Lake Geneva. Byron is portrayed as a rake, and as a bit of a scoundrel, who benefits from two lovers on site, his male companion, called John Polidori, I’m guessing for libretto purposes, and a female paramour, Claire Clairmont, allegedly the sister of Mary Godwin, and pregnant with Byron’s child. Brendan Norton, as Byron, and William McGlone, as Polidori, have a rather beautiful and sensual kissing scene. Crystal Charles’s Clairmont is scorned and made miserable by Byron’s inattention.

The Shelleys are portrayed as illicit lovers, which they were in fact, although in the reality that supersedes fact, their relationship, while not exactly sanctioned by Mary’s parents, was open and well-known among British literary and social circles.

The domestic scenes in “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” are more successful than the philosophical scenes, in which several of the characters, Claire chief among them, express an isolation and loneliness much like the one “The Monster” relates to Dr. Frankenstein, in this opera portrayed as a woman, in his most plaintive moments.

However altered from history, Geffers imagines multiple conflicts among the inmates of the Swiss villa. Polidori and Claire are both jealous of the other’s association with Byron, who seems to love and encourage the turmoil.  Polidori also worries about Byron’s camaraderie with Percy Shelley, specifically whether they are sharing intimacy he believes should be his alone. He is particularly concerned when a leg injury, suffered in a suicidal moment of pique, prevents him from joining Byron and Shelley on one of their  boating excursions.

Sexuality is the driving force among the visitors to Lake Geneva. Ironically, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley, the two characters known to be passionate lovers,  show the fewest signs of tenderness and have the fewest incidents of intimacy between them.

Geffers’s theme is often one of being left out or of being deceived. Claire and Polidori seem particularly scorned and abandoned. They each sing about the loneliness they feel, their sense of not being included in the wider and more vibrant world of their more famous literary friends and supposed lovers. Their sentiments mirror those Michael A. Lienhard sings about as a character simply called Monster.

Monster confronts his creator, Kirsten C. Kunkle’s Dr. Frankenstein, about why she created him only to abandon him and leave him to find his way to civilized life. The Monster Lienhard portrays is one who has nurtured himself and who learned the felicity of human behavior by studying an idyllic family from a distance. He has the burden of knowing he is an outcast. Seeing his reflection in a pond one day, he realizes he is a grotesque, different in proportion, range of skin pigmentation, and physical appearance from anyone he sees around him. In the opera, as in Shelley’s novel, he pleads with Dr. Frankenstein to make him a companion, to give him a friend, a woman, who would not shudder at the sight of him and be repelled by his aspect. Monster’s dialogue leading to his request comes directly from a touching part of Shelley’s text, as does Geffers, Hartman, and Revak’s title.

Society and companionship, whether troubling as among the villa residents, or idealized, as by Monster, also figure much into Geffers’s book.

The libretto has potential. Geffers has to smooth out parts that become a tad melodramatic or self-consciously histrionic. Polidori’s verbal attack on Lord Byron, for instance, seems written a bit by the numbers instead of being sincere and visceral. (In a reversal of a real event, Polidori accuses Byron of sending the story he writes in the contest that foments “Frankenstein,” a draft about a “vampyre,” to his publisher to be printed in Byron’s name. In truth, Polidori distributed “Vampyre” to publishers after Byron’s death, thinking that was the surest way to bring it to the public.) She also has to find more for Kristy Joe Slough’s Mary to do than think about her entertainment, the manuscript that turns out to be “Frankenstein.”

The byplay between the poets and their lovers is pungent. Jealousy and feelings of emotional abuse, especially by Byron, get the most attention and leave the greatest impression. These scenes need to be honed, made more subtle, and made more poignant. Geffers does more than borrow famous names to enhance her story. The imagined doings in the house that includes Byron and the Shelleys is primary fodder for drama, especially since “Frankenstein” is a direct byproduct of the occasion, but Geffers needs to come at her subject less baldly, less directly. Her depiction of Percy Shelley is sketchy and leaves the character with no core. Even Mary seems to be a bit of a cipher at times.

The concentration is on Byron. Geffers probably overstates his villainy by an exponential degree, but she makes Byron interesting, and Brendan Norton makes him fun to watch. Norton has a grace that proclaims assurance and a mischievous look that tells when Byron is deciding to evilly torment Claire or Polidori. He doesn’t leave the Shelleys alone either. All is grist for Byron’s amusement. This makes him the focal character, even when Lienhard’s Monster appears on the scene, but there is so much more Byron can be, so much texture with which Geffers can endow his character, if “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” is to be developed further.

Musically, Josh Hartman and Reese Revak’s score has more of an early 20th century sound to it than one that harkens to the Shelleys’ era. Songs in the beginning sequences, when the poets and their friends are just gathering and grousing over the rain that spoils outdoor adventures, is bright and tingly. It has a happy sound to it. Tones get darker, more lyrical, and more modern as “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein,” proceeds. Hartman and Revak’s score fits the material, but it does so by serving it more than illuminating it. Little of the music is memorable, but it seemed right for its purpose while the opera proceeded.

Geffers’s lyrics key into loneliness and longing. All the female voices in “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein, are lovely, powerful, and loaded with shadings and color that show the talent of Kristy Joe Slough, Crystal Charles, and Kirsten C. Kunkle, but one peculiarity of the soprano register is it often keeps libretti from being heard distinctly. I had trouble understanding Geffers’s text. The emotion of a passage was felt. I was able to get the gist of what was being sung, especially from Charles, but any subtlety or wit was lost in the unintelligible heights of the soprano voice. It isn’t a question of diction as much a quirk of frequency. Kunkle sang wonderfully, but often the elevated tones, garbled what she was saying.

The sad part of this is the entire cast of “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” sings with fidelity and luster. Slough, Charles, Kunkle, Norton, McGlone, Lienhard, as Joseph Cianciulli make a synergistic ensemble, their voices blending into beautiful harmonies, the words that can be discerned being expressed in a heartfelt and appropriate manner. When each sings individually about his or her particular struggle with feeling alone, Hartman and Revak’s opera goes beyond being a pleasant enough pastime to having some effect and majesty. A duet between Kunkle’s Frankenstein and Lienhard’s Monster is especially telling (when it can be understood). As “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” proceeds on its creative journey, the composers and Geffers need to think about more pointed arias and some fuller songs that denote individual character.

Norton and McGlone were the strongest among the actors. The relationship between Byron and Polidori was the best defined and had the most variety. The bond between Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin is the relationship that needs to be developed most. Charles did a good job showing Claire’s perception of  being a fifth wheel and her longing for Byron, both because he is a multi-faceted man and because he is the father of her soon-to-be-born child.

Byron, like Dr. Frankenstein, is a creator of sorts. He seems to be the only real-life character who has his own volition and who decides what he is going to do or how he is going to act on a given day. He is also the character the others tend to resent, the one whose attention they want, and the one they desire to teach them how life works and how to proceed through it. Brendan Norton embodies these traits neatly.

Because Byron is the sought, McGlone and Charles have more opportunity than their castmates to gain a dramatic foothold and make their characters matter. Byron is tantamount to Frankenstein and the Monster to his suitors. Geffers stays true to Mary Shelley, in making Monster polite and articulate, and Lienhard portrays him well, using his size but emphasizing his sensitivity.

You can see that although “By You That Made Me, Frankenstein” is an opera, Geffers’s book gets, and rates, more attention than her lyrics or Hartman and Revak’s music. This leads to another consideration of the creators, to see if they can make their “creature” more like a musical than like a play with music, as it is now.

Gabriel Rebolla did an excellent job playing Hartman and Revak’s score on a solo piano and directing the singers.

“By You That Made Me Frankenstein” runs through Sunday, September 21, at the Franklin Inn Club, 205 S. Camac Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 and may, at this point, be on a stand-by basis. They would only be available at the Franklin Inn Club. Information can be obtained at http://www.philadelphiaoperacollective.org.

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