Monday, October 1, 2018

Blood on the Plains

Mazzoli’s Proving Up
Miller Theatre
September 28, 2018

What makes a home? Life on the prairie is serious business.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
A desolate plot of land took center stage at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of Missy Mazzoli’s new chamber opera, Proving Up. This sandbox filled with forebodingly dark, desolate soil along with the backdrop – a stark wall of raw plywood out of which the silhouette of a simple house had been cut – were meant to represent the hopes and dreams of the Zegner family, one of many homesteaders who are wagering a future in the Nebraska Territory of the 1860s. 

The itinerant window.
Photo credit: Scott Suchman
However, the land itself does not lie at the center of the dramatic tensions in the opera. The story revolves instead around the question of a simple pane glass window, a rarity in these parts. In fact, there is only one of them to be found and it is in the Zegners’ possession. A whimsical clause in the Homestead Act of 1862 stipulates that the home must have at least one of them installed in order for the homesteader to be able to “prove up,” or lay official claim to their land. 

Proving up is a metaphor that runs through the opera, as it does in the short story of the same title by Karen Russell on which it is based. The youngest son, the 11-year-old Miles Zegner, is eager to prove up to the maturity that is expected of him in the mission that lies ahead. 

Mazzoli’s score eases us into the landscape of this world. She opens the opera with a few sparse dissonant sounds, that subtly accompany Mr. Johannes “Pa” Zegner, sung by a commanding and at times carousing John Moore. His baritone intones an anthropological prologue to the piece. He sings Mazzoli’s own setting of Uncle Sam’s Farm, a propaganda ditty espousing the virtues of the government’s purported generosity. Encouraging westward expansion, it invites the world and its unwashed masses with open arms to:

Come along, come along, make no delay;
Come from every nation, come from every way.
Our lands, they are broad enough – don’t be alarmed,
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.

Pa Zegner croons this tune da capo several times, with each repetition the contours of its melody emerge more and more from the inchoate dissonance of those initial sounds that become chords, as the world of the story begins to come into focus.

Facsimile of the full text of the ditty.
But then before we are thrust into the actual story, Mazzoli opts to follow her prologue with a rather pedantic introduction, in which the Zegner family sing to us about some of the finer points of the Homestead Act, with an almost musical-style refrain in which they name the piece of legislation multiple times in unison. It seems to me that there a subtler ways of incorporating this kind of information into less harshly expository moments.

As soon as one begins to wonder when the ship is going to sail, the narrative winds pick up and we are finally underway. The oldest Zegner boy, a silent role played by the dancer Sam Shapiro, stumbles onto the stage, his chest caked with mud and blood that oozes thick from a wound. He’s not going to be able to make the family’s philanthropic rounds with the prized window in this state. That onus will fall to their youngest Miles, but can they afford to lose him? Ma thinks not, Pa is counting on him to make them proud. 

You see, rumor has it that the one-eyed inspector from Washington is on his way by train to finalize the land deeds of those who have a window in their sod homes. Fancying themselves good-hearted old farmers, the Zegners spread their window wealth around. Having stolen the window themselves, they are intent to prove up in the eyes of God by installing their window in the homes of their neighbors for inspection and then covertly moving it from home to home for subsequent inspections. “Farmers,” carouses Pa in one of his more uplifting numbers, “need to look out for farmers,” which is apparently something of a family mantra. 

Peter hangs on by a thread, young Miles will have to step up.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre
Mazzoli’s score, set for a chamber orchestra, on the whole exceeded what I have come to expect from certain types of contemporary opera. It is classically refined with folksy flourishes from the flute and harp, which she brandishes like a guitar. Her use of the violins can modulate from brooding atmospherics that suggest the fog laying low out over the Great Plains to frolicsome fiddle at an old timey though slightly somnolent hoedown. The voices of the bassoon and clarinet from the woodwinds section regularly contribute eerie off-kilter colors to her immersive soundscape. 

Reading Russell’s prose, one is struck by its pervasive quirkiness, strewn as it is with flashes of poetic wit, which turns out to be very well suited to Mazzoli’s sensibility. Librettist Royce Vavrek managed to carry over many of Russell’s most incisive gems. And the composer imbued this otherworldly period piece with a strangeness that was largely very melodic and pleasant on the ear, not to mention evocative of a distant yet familiar time and place in our collective imagination. 

Ma conjures the ghosts of her dead daughters.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson 
There are nevertheless several moments in which I feel like she falls victim to the tendency in modern opera of calling unnecessary attention to itself as opera. I don’t see the need to excessively set words to a music that distorts their expressive sense in the narrative. Unfortunately, the talented soprano Talise Trevigne, whom we have admired elsewhere, in the role of Mrs. Johannes “Ma” Zegner, had to sing several of these zingers. But so did her husband. Not even Miles’ lines are immune to this scourge. It seems to me that these are the moments that alienate new audiences from the art form. 

Thankfully enough of her operatic writing served the story more than call attention to itself for the sake of using the operatic voice to sound operatic, which gives me hope. In fact, I am excited by the prospect not only that she will soon be taking on a commission for the Metropolitan Opera but that she will reportedly take on Lincoln in the Bardo,the eminently visionary if not downright eccentric recent masterpiece by George Saunders. After Proving Up, which is set in the same period, I have a feeling that her style is perfectly suited to this. (Here’s to hoping she proves up!)

Sisters behaving like sisters even in death.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson
Like Saunders’ Bardo (which refers to the purgatorial portion of the Buddhist afterlife), Mazzoli’s Nebraska Territory is run through with spirits. The souls of the Zegners’ two dead daughters haunt their plot and hardly leave the stage in their long white prairie dresses. Their near constant presences, sung by Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico with ghoulish gusto, serve to enliven the proceedings. Russell makes much less use of them in her story. In fact, Mazzoli and Vavrek seems to change the spirit focus in their work. In highlighting the active role of the daughters as ghosts, they end up transforming Russell’s primary spirit character into actual very material man. 

The mystery sodbuster as mountain of a man.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson
Having read the source story before the show, I half anticipated this mysterious zombie southpaw, the sodbuster of the spirit realm, the supreme judge and executioner, the omniscient angel of death, to be sung by a counter tenor. In the story he speaks with a “jangly tone” that is so “reedy and high” that the narrator Miles can barely understand. “His voice is almost female, or animal, and the words make no sense whatsoever,” is how the Miles of Russell’s story describes him. 

In Mazzoli’s score, Russell’s “willowy man” becomes a husky hulk of a bass-profondo with otherworldly booming long low lines. Here he was sung by an abundantly bearded, Andrew Harris, whose face was anything but gaunt. He struck rather the stage presence of an intimidating mountain of a man. Which leads to the impression that he is less all-knowing wraith and more self-interested settler who is up on his gossip and ready to come up in this harsh, hard world by any means necessary. 

What Harris as the deep-voiced sodbuster-turned-assassin has to sing were perhaps the most mellifluous musical lines of the evening. At any rate his writing gave him very few awkwardly parsed words and the expressivity of his instrument were used to effective narrative ends. In cases like this in modern opera, where the form perfectly serves the content, it is hard not to rejoice. 

You can look through the window but may not like what you see
Photo credit: Scott Suchman 
The only thing that struck me, even in his case, is one of the symptoms that has plagued many of the modern operas I have seen, namely, the repeated singing of the name of the character being addressed. While it may make sense on the page to clarify the identity of the interlocutor, on the stage it is utterly superfluous. It’s not how people talk to each other and it is not how any masterful opera or even play for that matter go about it. Can you imagine if every time someone addressed Rigoletto they called him by name? It would quickly grate on you. Once we find out that the aggressive sodbuster knows Miles by name we get it. It is clear that he is scolding him, if not downright lecturing him about the hardships he has endured and the hypocrisy of his family denying the thievery by which they got ahead. All the apostrophes of his name amount to unnecessary clutter that only pander to an audience that is more intelligent. 

Mazzoli’s ending is enigmatic to say the least, it lives with me still. It haunts you in a different (more absurd?) way than Russell’s original ending. In Russell’s version, the ambiguity is pretty straightforward, and it makes you rethink the strange cross-shaped trees that were planted behind the Yotherses’ home the year they inexplicably disappeared. Mazzoli and her librettist bring the violence right out onto the stage. 

Pa Zegner ponders the import of the window.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson
Miles doesn’t make it home, but this not so neighborly angel of death makes his way there in his stead. Ma Zegner confuses the silhouette of the sodbuster with a rifle on his shoulder for her returning son, whom she greets with: “God, you’ve brought life back to the promised land!” But she speaks too soon. Promise land, indeed. A shot rings out. Peter is down. But then rather than murder the rest of the family along with him, the loony sodbuster drops his rifle and attempts to tend to the wound he caused and to console a shaken Ma. Meanwhile Pa, in a drunken stupor, takes up the abandoned rifle and stumbles across the stage to exit on the other side, with the window under his arm, muttering to himself, “All that’s required, all that’s required.” A weapon and a precious commodity – all that’s required. All that’s required.

And thus closes an unsettling window onto American life. “That’s the thing with windows,” Russell’s sodbuster says at one point. “Sometimes we see things we don’t want to see.” 

– Lui
All that is required.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson

Composer Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek.
Photo credit: Rob Davidson for Miller Theatre

No comments:

Post a Comment