"For many years the people of Salon lived with a legend about a most extraordinary man...". So begins the epic story of Nostradamus, who is not only a real man, subjected to the usual dark-age difficulties of the Inquisition and the Plague, but also a ghost whose bones are moved from churchyard to churchyard in an attempt to appease the wakeful spirit. Seems there was something to those "forbidden sciences" of Alchemy and Kabbalah, something that not only permitted Nostradamus' famed prognostications but also seems to have turned him into some kind of demon.
I’ll admit that I’ve watched as many awful TV freakout specials about Nostradamus as the next person. I’ll also confess to a deep affection for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, to which Mr. Kotzev no doubt owes more than to, for example, the Who’s Quadrophenia. But what makes Nostradamus spooky, and what made the particulars of biblical history so easy to absorb in Superstar, is precisely what is lacking in this burdensome mix of orchestral sweep and heavy metal thunder: style.
This story has it all, from ghosts and mysticism to history, politics, plague and intrigue. But it all unfolds before the helpless (either from laughter or boredom I don’t know) listener with such ponderous and monochromatic drama that, at least in terms of dramatic thrust, I’m at a loss to describe any climax or resolution. Titles such as “The King Will Die”, “War of Religions” and “The Plague” are a testament to the general lack of imagination in the rendering of the story, which also includes a laundry list (if the Fox special wasn’t enough) of Nostradamus’ famous predictions.
The beauty—and the controversy—of Jesus Christ Superstar derived from the way it uprooted a traditional figure from his usual setting and transplanted him to a far more modern context—and made it work. It was not only easy but compelling to believe that Jesus was a sort of rock star in his time, with all the ego conflicts and uncertainty that characterize our own era. This rereading was also delivered without any loss of wholehearted hosannahs, as Webber’s score offered an entertaining mix of ballad and anthem all seamlessly sewn into a combination of Broadway brass and guitar-rock wail.
The trouble with Nostradamus is that Kotzev has taken a figure who knocks around in the back corners of the popular imagination and has given us a lot of details we don’t know how to care about. Who is this man? We never really get to know, not like we feel Jesus’ vanity and fear in his solos.
Although the Middle Ages and a certain baroque hard rock style are not exactly incompatible (think of those creepy guys in capes in the Society for Creative Anachronism—lots of long, moussed hair, am I right?), I do think Kotzev could have used his talents to create a more artful interplay. The music is mostly the sweep of orchestral strings, very classical sounding arrangements, punctuated by irritating, screaming guitar solos and the usual heavy-metal singing style. The vocalists are luminaries of the Scandinavian hard-rock world of which Kotzev is a veteran, as well as the leather-lunged Alannah Myles, who some may remember from her late ‘80s hit “Black Velvet”. All perform with feeling and skill, but they just aren’t given enough to work with as the story twists and turns its way through every detail without ever offering the simple pull of a central character or concern.
As I write this I find myself reverting to criticisms that would seem more appropriate to a book or essay. That makes sense, because rock opera is storytelling, the closest thing to a passion play that popular music has to offer—and it hasn’t offered us many of them since the ‘70s. If, as they plan, Kotzev and his cohorts want to bring this one to the stage, at least they’ll have to do what my high school drama coach used to do: sit down with a pencil and cut, cut, cut.