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

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, could not agree more!!
    I truly loved Daphnis' "Sheep scene" and its bite-style coloratura!
    Am I wrong, or you just hit your record of monthly reviews?!