A work subtitled “a new (necessary) opera” risks falling short of the expectations it has raised for itself. While not exactly essential, Hell at least finds partial redemption in its heavenly-voiced cast. In librettist Eileen Myles’s update of Dante’s Inferno, a cell-phone-toting agent (Matthew Chellis) pitches a goth poem called “Horns of Joy” and summons the poet Raphael (Juliana Snapper) to hell in order to write it.
As Verdi suspected, there are no arias in hell. People express themselves in chatty recitatives with flowery vocal embellishments reminiscent of 17th-century opera (the harpsichord gets a thorough workout). Michael Webster’s endearingly anachronistic score belies a broad satire whose targets are time specific in the extreme, ranging from the obvious to the bizarre. The president of the world, for example, is a blithering fool called Father Tree (Patrick Cook), who has bought hell and earth. And in case anyone needs to be reminded, war is still hell. But what fresh hell is Myles’s mouth-foaming rant against Judith Shulevitz’s 2002 Times Book Review column criticizing live poetry readings? It’s unclear how this eleventh-hour diatribe relates to the rest of the story; maybe the scene would have made more sense scored with the sound of axes grinding. Ironically, Myles’s raving feeds the wrongheaded argument that opera CDs are better than live performances: As Shulevitz said of recorded poets, at least you can shut them off.