Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Double Delight from Destitution to Debauchery

Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival
Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments & Offenbach’s Daphnis & Chloé
Sheen Center - March 20, 2015

Heartbeat Opera is a New York indie company freshly minted by Yale School of Drama graduates Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard. Their stated mission is to return to the essence of opera, placing singers at the center of their work, with productions that are daring and visceral, manifesting the emotional grandeur and theatrical power of opera with minimal means. Intrigued by the prospects, we went to Heartbeat Opera’s Spring Festival “double delight” to see if it was up to its inspired objectives.

György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments

The stark beginnings
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
Ethan Heard’s take on Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments, a 1985-87 piece for violin and voice based on Franz Kafka’s letters to his lover, opens with two mittel-European emigrants or “exiles very far away” appearing on stage when the lights come up. They are dressed in vaguely World War II era garb, though there is a 1980s television set in the seemingly temporary lodgings they are settling into. After a long journey, they are resigned to whatever fate awaits them in the world outside the three walls of the stage. They set their modest luggage down. The Voice puts her keys on the table with a weary hand. Her traveling companion thoughtfully fingers his violin case. The couple seems down on their luck and destitute, until the violinist breaks out his violin. Brace yourselves because from the moment he plays the first chord, the Voice kicks into gear and it’s off to the races for the two of them.

Lofty dreams juxtaposed to base destitution
Photo credit: Christopher Ash 
The music they make together seems to be their escape from the folly of life. Music is their way out. He plays, she sings. It’s a back and forth, an exchange, a call and response. Sometimes he leads, sometimes she does. At times the music they make and the feelings they evoke are tender and delicate, other times it’s more cathartic, other times it is philosophical, others still it manages to be frivolous and free, embracing the pure folly of existence and the incredible lightness of being human.

“Once I broke my leg: it was the most wonderful experience of my life”
“There are countless hiding places, but only one salvation; but then again, there are as many paths to salvation as there are hiding places.”
“Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.”
“Sleep, wake, sleep, wake, miserable life”

Passages like this last one, that actually got repeated twice, poignantly capture the existential dread of living. And the painful music that accompanies such sentiments heightens our discomfort.

Kafka's language as a character in the opera
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg

The piece was in German and the supertitles were artfully incorporated into the images that were projected onto the minimal yet effective set. The translations were often awkward though and I wasn’t always sure if the lack of grammatical flow was meant as an extension of the absurdity inherent in both the text and the music. There were moments in which a more correct and even more concise translation may have been even more powerful, in terms of the music being both a source of chaos but also a sort of saving grace for our poor destitute immigrants in their sad yet sardonic world. 

Projections add layers to our impressions
Photo credit: Christopher Ash 
The production was essential but with a thoughtful attention to detail and “scene” changes realized with different uses of lighting and shadows, artful projections onto the back screen and the flipping of furniture. Each passage through each of the four “parts” of the opus was punctuated by television static in a slightly disturbing yet poetic way.

I see a darkness
Photo credit: Christopher Ash 
Heartbeat Opera’s co-music director Jacob Ashworth displayed sheer virtuosity on the violin, and his performance was truly the backbone of the piece. He played the hell out of Kurtág’s evocative and poetic score and his bow was none the better for it. Ashworth shredded his way through this music and shed fibers from his bow as he progressed. Musically he was a force of nature, yet delicate with full and round sound. The more his bow wore down, the warmer and rounder his sound seemed to become. It almost felt like watching a stringed instrument work its way through a late Beethoven quartet, in which a portion of the musical effect comes from the exercise of resistance and stamina the instrument itself is forced to undergo over the roughly hour-long performance. He also cut a striking presence on the stage adding a good deal to the story and staging concept. This is a very versatile music director. Mezzo Annie Rosen, as the unnamed Voice navigating Kafka’s fragmentary thoughts, carried the piece from start to finish. Her instrument is luscious and displayed a variety of colors, from melancholic and reflective to exhilarated and furious. She imbued the performance with an energy that made the whole thing about the transformative power of art and poetry.

Things get Kafka-esque
Photo credit: Christopher Ash 
Dark and unpleasant from one fragment to the next, Rosen and Ashworth brought a life-affirming joy to the piece as a whole. The world beyond the walls of their rundown room may have been at an impasse, but within those three walls, they were able to conjure and create entire worlds of their own. To me the piece was ultimately redemptive: it is the arts that make our hearts beat.

"Stunned, we saw the great horse"
Photo credit:  Jill Steinberg

Jacques Offenbach’s Daphnis & Chloé

Kafka may have been the big avant-garde name that seems to have attracted all the offbeat audience members, but the Offenbach portion of the double bill was the real thrill of the evening. Louisa Proske’s take on the operetta Daphnis and Chloé shined like light of day against the darkness and night of Ethan Heard’s Kafka-Fragments. The two shows couldn’t have been more different.

The Bacchantes hatch a plan
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
This Offenbach operetta premiered in Paris in 1860 and is based on the novel by the classical Greek author Longus as adapted for a play at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in 1849. The plot revolves around the two young innocent shepherds of the title, who are just starting to discover the pangs of love and desire for each other, without actually knowing what those impulses are (nor how to deal with them). Enter the debauched God Pan and his raunchy Bacchantes, all on a mission to seduce Chloé and Daphnis, respectively, and teach them a thing or two about the joys of sex. The lessons unfold through a series of hilarious vignettes playing on the back and forth between innocence and depravity, with a surprising plot twist when Pan mistakenly drinks an oblivion-inducing potion in the middle of his seduction of the lovely shepherdess.

Fondling Pan's pipes
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
Beth Goldenberg’s costumes along with Jon Carter’s hair and makeup designs really helped to flesh out Proske’s take on the chorus of Bacchantes as a gang of 80s Cindy Lauper-era punk rockers turned candy ravers, which is always a safe analogy for the classic archetype of the followers of Pan. Here, however, the whole package came off all quite psychedelic, thanks largely to Reid Thompson’s visionary sets. Wow! These things were crazy! Cartoonish pink clouds and a wall of silver streamers framed a stage covered in AstroTurf with brightly colored flowers strewn around and kitschy fluffy plastic sheep. This was bucolic pastoral, on LSD, and it worked. From the moment lights went up on the set and the Bacchantes launched into their opening ensemble number, Heartbeat Opera transported us into a parallel universe and didn’t let us rest until the curtain went down. It was steady euphoria throughout. Everyone on my row had a big smile plastered across their faces from start to finish.

The Bacchantes in action
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
The God Pan
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The Bacchantes played by Tynan Davis, Kristin Gornstein, Molly Netter and Alexandra Loutsion were formidable and took the show by storm. They danced (to the wonderful choreographies of Chloe Treat) and sang with a raunchy and devilish energy as they worshipped, schemed, seduced and stirred up trouble left and right. One could just not get enough of them, and aptly so, as after all they are the priestesses of the god of wine and pleasure. Baritone Gary Ramsey killed it as the God Pan. He was the God Pan. Sporting with gusto goat feet, horns, leather pants and a fur trimmed red coat, he was the perfect embodiment of the bacchic lord of drunkenness and debauchery. Not only was Ramsey’s acting spot on, but his enunciation was crisp, funny and engaging and his deep baritone grounded with some manly energy the otherwise all female voices of the cast. His beard and makeup were just perfect. Ramsey was born to be Pan.

Chloé had a little lamb
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
The young and confused lovebirds were deliciously portrayed by soprano Nicole Haslett as Chloé and mezzo Karin Mushegain in the pants role of Daphnis. Their first duet “Why does my heart always beat like this” was extremely charming. Throughout the operetta, Haslett and Mushegain expertly carried the evolution of their characters from naive to curious to naughty, both vocally and acting-wise. Particularly memorable was Haslett’s opening number when she sings a sweet song of girlish affection to one of the sheep from her flock. The direction here was genius as she alternated between fondling suggestively her favorite beast and treating it like a child’s plaything, bespeaking her late adolescent waverings from nascent sexuality to its imminent blossoming. Against Reid Thompson’s psychedelic sets, it was a tripped out vision of a bucolic alternate reality.

Young and in love
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
The five piece orchestra led by conductor Louis Lohraseb was phenomenal as it played effortlessly and vivaciously , all while wearing absurd psychedelic outfits. They brought to life and made us discover this Offenbach delicious and rarely performed score with unassuming precision and verve. The ensemble's performance of arrangements of Verdi, Rossini and Mozart popular tunes while the audience was settling in was also a most entertaining and pleasurable touch.

Let's hear it for the band: Loosey goosey, yet tight as a clenched fist
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Offenbach’s operetta was sung in a new English translation from its original French. I usually cringe at the thought of pieces like this being rendered in English, a language with a musicality better suited to the rhythms of other forms of expression. But this was different. The new translation of Clairville and Jules Cordier’s original libretto by Michaël Attias in collaboration with Louisa Proske and Jacob Ashworth was fresh and brought life both to the arias and ensemble musical numbers and exhibited a linguistic playfulness even in the numerous bits of dialogue. Only rarely did the turn of phrase feel forced around the need complete a rhyme. It was ridiculous when the God Pan says something to the effect of “I think not / I need a little pot.” The anachronistic awkwardness of the statement was only heightened by the demands of the rhyme. Fortunately, however, Gary Ramsey’s infectious acting carried the whole thing off and not just in moments like these. Also, the only recording of this operetta we could get our hands on is in a German translation, so it’s not like our ears were accustomed to the French original.

Daphnis debauched
Photo credit: Heartbeat Opera
Two very different pieces, one moody and poetic, the other buoyant and irreverent, both displayed the same level of artistic excellence. There is nobody out there on the NYC independent opera scene offering such a complete package at this level. They’ve got the singers. They’ve got the acting chops. They’ve got an unpretentious orchestra that is both extremely competent and having fun while theyre at it. They’ve got the directorial vision and the modest means to realize it. Scale and means do not matter, on the contrary when opera gets this intimate and is so perfectly crafted in each and every aspect, it is indeed distilled to its essence. The air palpably vibrates and the narrative and emotional core of the work is conveyed as powerfully as ever. Hearbeat Opera is not even a year old, but its founders Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard have a vibrant artistic vision and the skills to realize it. Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful indie company. We look forward to seeing them grow – particularly if, as rumor has it, next season it may tackle Donizetti and Mozart... Bring it on!

- Lui & Lei

The cast of Daphnis and Chloé
Photo credit: L'Altro

Monday, March 9, 2015

East Meets West (and a Humping Donkey)

Handel’s Semele
Canadian Opera Company
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House - March 6, 2015

Juno's temple gets a Chinese twist
Photo credit: Karl Foster
Lui: The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Semele directed by artist Zhang Huan opens with a black and white documentary shot in modern China projected on a curtain-sized screen, about a sixteenth-century Chinese temple that was used as living quarters by a poor Chinese family and then dismantled and reassembled in a hangar in modern day Shanghai. The documentary gets into menial details such as a mother’s desire to renovate the space to make it more appealing to her son’s potential future bride and her son’s admission that he has been interested in both boys and girls over the course of his life. It also tells the story of a husband who kills his wife’s lover and is then sentenced to death and executed. This last detail in particular is supposed to serve as the director’s framing of his interpretation of the Semele story. The only effect though, was to immensely distract from the beauty of the overture by forcing the public to engage with the fast changing subtitles (often in broken English, thus doubly distracting) and follow the documentary plot that, ultimately, had little to do with Semele.

Love between a god and a mortal
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lei: In Handel’s original libretto, the young and lovely mortal Semele loves Jupiter the king of the gods who sweeps her away and makes her his favorite mistress, which utterly enrages his wife Juno, who plots her revenge by leveraging on Semele’s ambition to become an immortal goddess herself. With the help of Somnus the god of slumber, Juno enacts her plan and tricks Semele into believing that if Jupiter makes love to her in his immortal form (as opposed to in his usual human disguise), she would gain immortality herself. The vain and hubristic Semele falls into the trap and, when she forces Jupiter to obey her wish, she is burned to ashes by the god’s divine thundering force. Juno rejoices, the chorus laments Semele’s death, and Apollo announces that from her ashes the god of wine Bacchus will be born – everybody is happy.

Juno gets jealous
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lui: With its tenuous link to the contemporary events of the jealous husband who killed his rival (just as Juno causes Semele’s death), Zhang Huan’s interpretation decidedly, if shakily, focuses on Juno’s revenge rather than Semele’s overarching ambition, but even here I am unimpressed. When it comes to the way this cast embodies these characters, Juno as sung by contralto Hilary Summers was not played as a vicious woman hell-bent on revenge, but rather was always more eager to play to the laugh. And the audience laughed a good deal at her farcical take on the most slighted of all the gods. Sure the score may have some playful bits for her to sing, like the descending melismatic scale first on fall, fall, fall and then on rolling down the depths of night” in the moment in which she hatches her plan of revenge, but in the hands of most other singers (listen to Joyce DiDonato’s recent recording of Hence, Iris, hence away) these lines are ferocious and fiery. Summers took all of the drama out of her role, and by any indication this is the portion that Zhang Huan found most captivating since he attempted to liken her wounded pride to that of the poor contemporary peasant who once lived in the very temple that was lugged all the way from China to Toronto to Brussels and now to Brooklyn, all 17 tons of it. There must be something there. To say from the show itself though, something was definitely lost along the way. The performance itself hardly lifted a feather to this interpretation’s 17-ton staging.

Semele and the infamous humping donkey
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lei: The idea of moving the action to a Chinese religious setting could have worked, because in Semele the Greco-Roman gods, their ancient temples and their otherworldly whims are an essential part of the drama. Zhang Huan’s execution of this idea, however, was muddled and unfocused as he threw together just too much stuff that, most of the time, only interfered with the music (such a pity as conductor Christopher Moulds seemed to be doing a great job). The most egregious distraction was a grotesque donkey portrayed by two actors poorly disguised and goofing around the stage in various stages of sexual excitement, at some point even sporting an abnormally large aroused phallus. The donkey may have represented some embodiment of Jupiter and surely elicited many laughs and cheers from the BAM public but to anyone with an interest in the music and singing it was just irritating.

Humping donkey on the loose
Photo credit: Zhang Huan website
Lui: The donkey actually seemed to be a reference to The Golden Ass, a late antique prose narrative by the North African Latin author Apuleius, in which the protagonist is transformed into a donkey who over the course of his adventures takes advantage of the fact that in his new state he is actually abnormally well endowed. The reference would not be entirely unfounded because other plot points from Apuleius’ novel are echoed in the opera. One of the interpolated tales in The Golden Ass is the story of Psyche who is convinced by her jealous and conniving sisters to insist that her surreptitious lover Cupid reveal himself for what he really is even though that would break their pact. Virtually the same thing happens here in Act III of Handel’s opera when Juno disguised as Semele’s sister convinces her to insist that Jove come into her in all his godly glory as the great thunderer he is, which ultimately leads to her hubristic downfall. I hesitate to give this production so much credit for such a learned literary reference, but sometimes you never can tell. If so much of the rest of what Zhang Huan includes on stage was not so dispersive and so utterly offensive to the original spirit of the piece, I would be more willing to accept the idea that this was an intended intertextual reference.

Sumo wrestlers louder than the chorus
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lei: As it is I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to fit the other disparate pieces of this production into Zhang Huan’s vision of Handel’s opera, like the peasant fisherman, whose plaintive Chinese folk song replaced the closing number in Act I. Not to mention one of the other major distractions, namely, the pair of Sumo wrestlers at the end of Act II that put on a whole show of doing what I suppose Sumo wrestlers do – stomping around, grunting, moaning and throwing each other loudly on the ground – all this while the excellent chorus was delivering the beautiful finale to Act II. Not only did the wrestlers have nothing to do with what was being sung (even if they did trot off stage lovey dovey and hand in hand, go figure), but more problematically they created a whole lot of noise that covered up the music and singing. At some point we also have some sort of orgy going on, featuring the chorus members stripping down to their skivvies and simulating various forms of copulation, which was mostly pitiful to watch, as this was clearly awkward and uncomfortable for the poor singers. Some things are better left to dancers.

Semele flying high
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lui: Other ideas in Zhang Huan’s over the top production did have some potential and at times were almost successful. I understand the instinct behind the concept of hanging Semele off a wire when she sings the famous Act I aria Endless pleasure, endless love, but this staging seems to have been blocked for a much larger stage. From the balcony it was difficult to enjoy let alone even clearly hear this most beautiful of arias because poor Jane Archibald as Semele was dangling off a string so high above the stage that for us she was literally singing from behind the supertitles screen and all we could see were her legs.  

God of slumber snoozes under blankey on temple's roof
Photo credit: BAM
The Somnus scene was perhaps the most unique moment, and thus it appears in all of the promotional material. But even it was overwrought with its useless blow-up doll. Slightly simpler and potentially less original is the mirror scene in the beginning of Act III. When Juno makes her appeal to Semele’s narcissistic vanity and plays the poor mortal into her own overarching ambition to become immortal, a floor to ceiling wall of mirrors replaces the curtain at the front of the stage so she can ogle herself to distraction. This more direct effect and very literal-minded staging concept was probably the most effective of the night, as the audience, too, reflected in the mirror, it became part of the show in a very meta-theatrical way.

Mirrors reflect all (Brussels 2009 performance pictured)
Photo credit: Zhang Huan website
Lei: Beyond the distractions and absurdities of this production, Zhang Huan’s truly unforgivable choices were to change Handel’s score and cut the plot to his whim. The first instance was to replace the final chorus of Act I with the inexplicable Chinese fisherman singing a cappella a Chinese folk song. Also, the sub-plot in the final act between Ino (Semele’s sister) and Athamas (Semele’s betrothed) was completely omitted. Not content, Zhang Huan also radically changed the finale. While in Handel’s libretto the opera ends with Apollo announcing that from Semele’s ashes Bacchus will be born and the chorus delivers a jubilant concluding piece, Zhang Huan’s decided that that just did not fit his vision and ended with a modern day Chinese peasant sweeping Semele’s ashes while the chorus hums the Internationale communist anthem. It is not an insignificant detail as one of the themes of the opera is indeed that of metamorphosis (Ovid is one of the sources after all) and the god of wine and pleasure arising from Semele’s ashes is the most striking and uplifting of transformations. You may do what you want with Chinese temples and horny donkeys but please do not tamper with the score if you still want to sell the performance as Handel’s Semele.

Semele's last stand
Photo credi: Gary Beechey
Lui: As to the singers, the cast was adequate at best and in some instances embarrassingly incapable. Soprano Jane Archibald as Semele was the saving grace of the show. She was by far the strongest singer on stage and at least capable of getting where she needed to, delivering a correct (though by no means dazzling) performance, with a touch of virtuosity in the mirror showcase piece Myself I shall adore, If I persist in gazing. Contralto Hilary Summers (playing both Juno and Semele’s sister Ino) had an extraordinarily low instrument (so much that at times I wondered if the singer was male or female - one never knows with baroque cross dressing) yet not very powerful but played both her characters in a mockingly histrionic way that was pretty entertaining. Soprano Katherine Whyte as Juno’s servant Iris was spunky and energetic and generally pleasant. 

Semele and Jupiter at the height of their affair
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
The real issues came with the gentlemen: Colin Ainsworth as Jupiter had excellent acting skills but was vocally one of the weakest tenors I’ve seen live in a world class stage, displaying a total lack of musicality, power and expressiveness coupled with a plain inability to get in the higher registry or sustain a baroque melisma without breaking it; the singing of bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen (playing both Semele’s father Cadmus and the slumber god Somnus) was very low and slow but lacked depth and was mostly (appropriately?) sleep-inducing; countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as Semele’s betrothed Athamas left me lukewarm singing-wise but his slapstick acting was, after the donkey, the most obscene on stage (as he unnecessarily humped a pillar, the donkey, Semele, the floor and even a chorus member). The chorus led by chorus master Sandra Horst delivered a great singing performance, which made Zhang Huan’s various cuts to the chorus parts even more enraging.
Zhang Huan's 17-ton production
Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian
Lei: To me, this was not Handel’s Semele but rather a multi-media Eastern hodgepodge of performance art inspired by and riffing on Handel’s Semele. Hodgepodge which, in and of itself was an interesting experiment. But if we think of the show as Handel’s opera, it was a pretty sacrilegious production directed by someone who may know what he’s doing as artist in other mediums, but declares in the program’s notes: “there are very few people who understand opera, and even fewer artists who understand it. In all honesty, I too do not understand opera, but I like doing things out of the ordinary.” Maybe opera is best left to people who, at a minimum, understand what it is.

Semele dissolves into ashes
Photo credit: Zhang Huan
Lui: All of our blowhard ranting aside, this was truly one of the most spectacular and unique operatic experiences that we’ve had all season. There is obviously a lot of serious money behind the commission of this production. Perhaps this is the most disappointing element of all. While I was leaving the theater I overheard several audience members writing off the shortcomings of the evening on the sentiment: “Oh, that’s just opera for you!” The fact that it was obviously a moment in which opera was given some major visibility outside of its usual sphere, I left feeling like it was yet another squandered opportunity to inject some real life into what can be a vibrant and thrilling art form, when in the right hands.

- Lui & Lei