Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cleopatra Crashes Havisham's Would-Be Wedding

A Double Bill of Monodramas:
Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night
Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre
On Site Opera
The Harmonie Club
September 30, 2016

A bold pairing: Aurelia and Cleopatra
Photo credit: On Site Opera
It was a misty evening. The street glistened and traffic was backed up down Fifth Avenue under an incessant drizzle. When we arrived at the historic Harmonie Club on East 60th Street, I half expected Dorothy Parker to greet us, or Eleanor Roosevelt to take my coat. We were ushered through the elegant lobby and up to the second floor ballroom, where the ceiling was all rosette studded wood inlay and the chandeliers exuded the old New York refinement of another era. We were showed to our table that was set in grand fashion for a multicourse dinner service. It was as though we stumbled into a proper wedding reception. Though at the same time, something wasn’t right: cobwebs covered the wedding cake, the mantle pieces on either end of the salon were caked in dust, and the floral centerpieces on each of the tables were beautifully arranged but all the flowers were withering (artfully) away. Waiters came around with red and white wine and the feeling of excitement was palpable. It was after all Miss Havisham’s much anticipated wedding night (with a nod to Dickens).

A haunting stage is set and you're in it
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
First up, Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre – an intense soliloquy in music. I came in wondering how they might carry it off in a space like this. The score takes us on the whirlwind of emotions that buffets the great fallen queen during her final moments of life.

Gaissert goes Cleopatra á la Alma-Tadema
Photo credit: On Site Opera
In the role of Cleopatra, mezzo Blythe Gaissert moved violently yet gracefully about the room as if possessed. She embodied Berlioz’s heroine with fervor. It’s such a moving piece especially when in the middle passages the cellos kick in and send the emotions into the lower more guttural range of the mezzo’s voice – deep and sad and chesty. It tore at my heart. There were at least three moments in the twenty or so minute long piece in which I found myself on the verge of tears, if only the tempo allowed me the catharsis. Instead the piece pushes on and we move into the next movement of the emotional rollercoaster that is Cleopatra’s demise. So moving, so beautiful.

Who got the snakes out?
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
We were privy to Cleopatra’s in extremis breakdown. And she sang it as if we weren’t there. Amazing. And if the moment before the suicide was not dramatic enough, Ms. Gaissert pulled out a real snake! The live-reptile move definitely helped shake up anybody in the audience who may have drifted off and served to refocus their attention on Cleopatra’s every syllable (and gesture, god forbid she lose her grip on the snake). The scene played out like an Alma-Tadema painting. It had me tingling all over. And left me wanting more.

Gaissert showed us her stuff. She sounded deep and powerful, like a woman who is used to being in control. And she moved about the room with self-assurance and pride, but on the verge of annihilation. It was frenzied, yet totally called for. 

Berlioz’s setting of this text was composed in 1829 for a competition during his apprenticeship, when he was up and coming in the music world. I have always found it dramatically satisfying. I was curious to see how they might adapt it not to a recital or a proscenium but to a site-specific ballroom space. It was intriguing. Though we were all seated in a wedding dinner fashion, it was as though we were silently eavesdropping on her. Very dramatic. 

Here comes the bride
Photo credit: On Site Opera
While I wasn’t worried about the musical qualities of the Berlioz, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the second piece on the bill, this more recent and completely unknown work by Dominick Argento, Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night. On my way there under the rain, I had prepared to brace myself for anything, but after Cléopâtre my guard was down and I was open to whatever might come.

Madness sets in
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
And come she did. Miss Havisham burst into ballroom where we were all seated for her cake and champagne reception, though she was more of a nervous wreck than her predecessor. She scurried around the room, like Cleopatra, as though we weren’t there – skittish, delusional and disturbed. Soprano Leah Partridge sounded great, with very dynamic, at times almost syncopated singing.  And even looked the part, as she vaguely resembled her Helen Bonham-Carter incarnation from the famous movie based on the same Dickens novel with a slight Julianne Moore thing going on there too. She was striking both as an actress and vocally. Her instrument was happily strident to match the shrill madness of the character but also full and expressive, pliant and versatile so as to better flesh out the many twists and turns poor Miss Havisham undergoes over the course of reliving her wedding night meltdown (presumably years after the fact).

A love lost but not forgotten
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Argento’s score was surprisingly pleasant from start to finish, all while rendering musically the character's violent mood swings. Thank God he didn’t feel the need to go over the top in terms of the setting of the human voice against the orchestration just for the sake of being weird. Instead I feel like he adhered much more closely the mode that I came to appreciate in David Lang’s recent visionary operatic character study. Thanks to The Loser I came to think of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night as more of a dramatic monologue – this after all is the story of one of literature’s real losers, in a manner of speaking. The orchestration helped the soprano to achieve a sort of soliloquy that was expressive of a range of emotions that ran the gamut from delusion to anticipation and then from despair to the return of hope and back again. Though the overall takeaway was schizophrenic, the music remained contained and took her state of mind seriously throughout. Argento's approach was compassionate and humanistic and so ultimately even more tragic which is the nature of the poor Miss Havisham character in the novel, a woman who still nevertheless commands our sympathies despite her overarching eccentricities. It is a very subtle setting on the part of the composer, which was very tightly and tactfully interpreted by the orchestra under the baton of Geoffrey McDonald.

A lavish affair
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Both singers were of the utmost refinement, not to mention impeccably made up and dressed, and the space was truly next level. Eric Einhorn's direction was solid and made a good use of the space. In a stroke of genius, towards the end of Miss Havisham's delirious performance, he had Cleopatra come back in and have tea with the the crazy bride, almost as if the Egyptian queen was one of the many hallucinations of a disturbed mind. The ballroom of the Harmonie Club was decorated to perfection and the wood paneling provided great acoustics, too. And the lighting, oh, the lighting was phenomenal. It subtly shifted as the piece slowly shifted tones from desperation to the return of hope and back again. The shadows they cast as a result were strikingly suggestive. It was haunting yet grandiose, beautiful and unsettling all at once. On Site Opera spared no expense on this one and every detail was meticulously executed and visually stunning. Even the program was cleverly conceived of as that of Aurelia Havisham’s wedding to one Matthew Compeyson. This ranked up there with the most successful of On Site's efforts. The whole package was just of such extraordinary and extravagant polish that it was clear that this company has money (and from time to time knows how to use it). The wilted centerpieces, silk lace tablecloths and four glasses per guest alone must have not been cheap, not to mention insurance for that live snake! The attention to detail in creating such an immersive parallel universe is definitely praiseworthy, especially when all other key aspects of the production are equally solid. 

Set dressings caked in cobwebs
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Of everything we’ve seen from them this ranks right up there with the Paisiello they did at the Fabbri Mansion last year, only in that case there were even more moving parts. But like tonight there they also stuck to the exotic European language of the original, which is an absolute must. I only wish they would take a hint from successes like these and give us Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, which they announced for the spring, in the original rather than another bastardized English translation. The public is not that dumb, there is no need for English adaptations! Please give us La finta giardiniera in the original! Nevertheless, the company’s first-ever original commission will be a community-oriented piece that is to be performed in the dinosaur wing of the Natural History Museum. Not to be missed!

Lui & Lei

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