If you should ask me what sort of musician Nicolas Reveles is, you would be wise to sit down, because the answer is neither short nor simple. I have encountered him as a church organist and as a respected university music faculty member. His persuasive solo piano recitals have always left me wanting to hear more of his interpretive prowess. As San Diego Opera’s Director of Education and Outreach, he amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of that field, and no one could unravel a typically convoluted opera plot with such charm and finesse.
But Reveles does more than teach, perform, and expound music—he also composes it. With a cadre of skilled musical compatriots, he presented a concert of his own compositions Wednesday (September 18) at the La Jolla Community Center. He opened with a Suite for clarinet and piano, but the rest of his program centered on vocal music, including an excerpt from his 2010 opera Sextet, a Queer Opera in Six Scenes and a concert reading of his recent one-act chamber opera Take Care of Him, A Horror Opera.
Bass-baritone Ted Allen Pickell gave a masterful, emotionally vivid account of “Walt’s Boy,” a scene from Sextet in which extensive excerpts of Walt Whitman’s poetry recount a tryst between the poet and a young Civil War soldier. Pickell’s encompassing, resonant bass-baritone soared through Reveles’ vivacious, energetic lines, his eloquent declamation caressing Whitman’s bold, intimate revelations. Reveles accompanied authoritatively on piano, unleashing equal dramatic strength in the instrumental characterization of the scene.
Although Reveles’ idiom in Sextet remained unapologetically tonal—as did the rest of his compositions heard on this program—like the Czech composer of the last century Leoš Janáček, Reveles demonstrated that it is possible to work creatively within the bounds of tonality without succumbing to banal predictability.
A roiling three-character melodrama with a libretto by Michael Vegas Mussman, Take Care of Him follows a contentious encounter between the elderly, misogynist Mr. Costello and Yadira, his Mexican caregiver. No longer able to endure his dementia-induced abuse, Yadira persuades her son Javier to kill him while he sleeps. She is immediately overcome with nightmarish apparitions that portend her own demise.
Tempestuous characters and supernatural visitations, a combination so expertly exploited by Gian Carlo Menotti in his post World War II operas, gave the La Jolla audience a genuine retro thrill. Indeed, as mezzo-soprano Susana Poretsky adroitly tore through Yadira’s impassioned outbursts, I could not help but recall Magda Sorel, the desperate protagonist of Menotti’s 1950 opera The Counsel. Poretsky’s powerful, dark mezzo was matched by the forceful baritone Michael Sokol as Mr. Costello. After proving himself locally as a reliable lead baritone, Bernardo Bermudez has undergone a Fach change and took the tenor role of the malleable Javier. At this stage, the rich baritonal character of his lower range remains his strong suit, although he navigated the new vocal territory confidently.
I do not think that Take Care of Him is going to make either John Adams or Jake Heggie nervous, but I can see this just under an hour chamber opera finding a secure niche in the programming of university opera workshops.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah-Nicole Carter gave a winning account of Reveles’ set of three unrelated songs by William Blake. The composer’s idiom captured Blake’s acerbic tone with assertive, short phrases and brittle flourishes from the piano, provided by Reveles.
In The Volcan Mountain Suite for Clarinet and Piano (2018), Reveles crafted a set of seven musical postcards based on his visit to the Volcan Mountain Preserve in rural San Diego County. Each movement cleverly depicted some aspect of the flora or landscape of this sylvan retreat. I was taken by the mysterious, low clarinet arabesques that opened his portrait of “The Mountain” and the exuberant dance that characterized the “Lance-leafed Dudleya.” Reveles’ rich harmonic palette brought to mind Francis Poulenc’s popular woodwind sonatas. Sporting a bright, slightly edgy timbre, clarinetist Peter Dayeh met the composer’s ample challenges.
This concert was presented by Nicolas Reveles on September 18, 2019, at the La Jolla Community Center, 6811 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla, CA.