Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Worlds Collide Amidst the Renoirs

David Hertzberg’s The Wake World
Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17
Barnes Foundation
September 23, 2017
World Premiere

Is this real life, or is it just fantasy?
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
The Wake World was commissioned for Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O17 as a site-specific work to be staged in the very special Barnes Foundation museum (which is wonderful, by the way, and deserves a visit to Philly on its own right). The audience was encouraged to roam around the museum for an hour before the beginning of the performance. The sense of anticipation was palpable and we were not disappointed, as sure enough some strange individuals started popping out in the various museum rooms, walking around and checking out the paintings as normal museumgoers. Except they were wearing all blue, pink or grey outfits with matching face paint, or else they looked exactly like characters in some of the paintings, in a way suggesting that they just popped out of the art work.

Strange occurrences in the galleries shortly before curtain
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
When the opera finally started, however, it was not in the exhibition portion of the museum, but rather in the Annenberg Court, a large hall immediately adjacent to the galleries themselves. A bit disappointing, as it would have been terrific to have the characters go through their journey amongst the actual paintings. Admittedly, however, that would have presented insurmountable logistical challenges. The immersive side of the performance was very strong even in the large hall as the audience was free to walk around and follow the singers as they moved on the long catwalk. I have to say that there was something very special about being so close to the singers (and to the composer and director, both of whom followed the action along with us, almost like characters in the show) as they performed.

Some characters seem to have descended from the paintings
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Director R. B. Schlather brought some striking ideas to the staging of composer David Hertzberg’s surreal and fantastical (though ultimately pointless) riff on a wild and wacky short story by the sometimes-mystic occultist writer Aleister Crowley. I say riff because he slapped a sort of prologue onto it, swapped out the overall naive and playful tone of the original (ostensibly a tripped out children’s story) and replaced it with a more dramatic overall melancholy tone of moping. Most of all he gave it a spin by endowing it with something recognizable as an ending, which was perhaps the most poetic, most visionary and potentially most moving part.

The monochrome people look like brushstrokes
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
At the end of the roughly ninety minute long one-act opera, the Fairy Prince suddenly reveals himself to be a shapely woman with luscious long flowing locks of hair. He who is now a she (though, as they say these days, gender is just a construct anyway) appears on the end of the catwalk in a stunning translucent nightgown with an armful of flowers and sings a song of longing and love for her now absent Lola. Then Lola appears with her own armful of flowers and in a matching translucent slip for their big very wide-awake world reunion in the afterlife, presumably. The way the two of them glow in the light of their love for one another is also as though they have actually shed their mortal human clothing and transcended the earthly plane to become angels. The moment has no analogue in the original story but was among the most satisfying passages of the opera.

Let the ghostly frolicking begin
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The apotheosis is complete once the two frolic off together and end up running into the distance, out the exit doors, and into the garden of the Barnes Foundation, literally out into the “real” world outside, beyond the panes of glass where they dance like woodland ghostlike creatures by the scenic reflection pool. What does that make the wake world? And the wide-awake world? And the world after death? Which is which? The mystery remains an open question, in this respect, not unlike the Crowley story, which ends with a reference to a serpent eating its own tail – the classic insoluble knot, the conundrum to end all conundrums.

While Crowley utilizes Lola’s transhumance as a commentary on the habits of mind (like those forged by conformity and social conditioning) that make us who we think we are, Hertzberg seems to be less concerned about the construction of the self and more concerned with the spirit or the soul.

A dreamlike encounter in the prologue
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hertzberg also ups the ante on the poetic register. The texture of Crowley’s prose is rather plain and Lola’s narrative voice is intentionally confident but naive and playful. The entirety of Hertzberg’s text is almost overly ornate, full of archaic and rare aulic terminology and rife with alliteration more often than not. Which is not a characteristic of Lola’s first person narration in the original text at all.

The bog behind this stooping brow
Hath its measurements congealed.

Say what? Several of the Dream characters, a couple of whom seem to reference figures found in the paintings in the museum, especially the two bedraggled men in the prologue, speak with pseudo-archaisms as in this bit quoted above. Or else: “The patch, she devoureth herself.” (Huh?) Their verbs end with Shakespearean -th suffixes and are paired with doth’s and hath’s and shalt’s. Many made up words abound, especially those that have a peculiar pseudo-antiquated flair.

And find faultless joy in phlegm unstained.

Allegorical introductions and farewells
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco 
(Huh?) However, when Lola begins speaking in the early segment called, “II. The Beginning,” all of the hifalutin gibberish goes out the window. This is where the Crowley story begins and we seem to enter the world of the Fairy Prince’s palace proper. Very little, if anything, was done to intimate the space of a palace. Aside from a catwalk that ran the length of the long rectangular Annenberg Court, the large reception hall where visitors congregate to enter the Barnes Foundation, there was no set to speak of. Instead Hertzberg created an otherworldly place out of his use of shards of language and an immersive sound experience that was brought to life by the Opera Philadelphia Chorus. Words repeated and syllables alliterated in the construction of phrases that unfolded into what could possibly pass as sense or meaning.

Strangers, why do you stand there
Smiling softly in sinister silence?

Soprano Maeve Höglund in the principle role of Lola, “the key of all delights,” sang her heart out and eventually sang her clothes off and her silky skin and her bones. Her character seemed to get her vestments from one of the Renoirs in the collection, or else Alice in Wonderland for the adult crowd. It was definitely Höglund who buoyed the whole show with her charismatic presence as well as her singing. Her muscular soprano pined with longing, lusted with feeling, was conflicted in her desire and worked through many surreal doldrums and other abstractions along the way.

The Fairy Prince toys with his plaything
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The Fairy Prince was sung by mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb who played “him” as a sort of Annie Lennox or mid-1980s Madonna in drag as a man in a three piece double-breasted suit, hair pulled back and wielding a gentleman’s pipe. Chaieb cut a commanding figure as she toyed with her little plaything mostly from afar. A cloud of gender-stereotyped behavior hung heavy over their interactions. At one point little Lola grovels at her Fairy Prince's feet for whose dear indulgence she supplicates as she grabs his knees.

The torment continues
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
There was even a woman dressed in a full body flesh-colored jumpsuit who looked like a Renoir nude, complete with the eroticized knee high white stockings and red high heels. She seemed to have stepped right out of one of the Renoirs that Dr. Barnes, in one of his elaborate symmetrical wall compositions, paired with a still life of bulbous apples that recall the female form in one of the sensory overload rooms in the galleries through which we were invited to wander in anticipation of the start of the opera.

For all the vagaries of the libretto and its improvement upon the source material, Hertzberg’s score constituted a highly sophisticated piece of music. It was suggestive and dreamy and beautiful in every bar. He never reverts to strange or jarring dissonance just for the sake of creeping the audience out. Musically he creates ambience, a stunning sense of space and place. It was incredibly listenable. Hertzberg’s music definitely takes you places – flashes of Debussy, maybe, and Saariaho, only without the cacophonous weird bits.

This man plays the "blue room"
(whatever that means)
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Most of all, I thought of Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle, perhaps mostly in terms of its enigmatic narrative structure and its unsettling palatial architecture, musical and otherwise. Like Bartòk, Hertzberg’s score as well as his libretto keep you on the edge of your seat in wonder. Where is he taking us? What does it all mean?

The shame it seems to me is that such visionary and refined talent continues to be wasted on such superficial and shallow projects. Audiences are hungry for real depth and emotional breadth. They can wrap their minds around challenging and complex material when the mind of the creator rises to that level and gives us something of substance to grapple with, yet so many of our contemporary composers give us trifles.

Singers like these are also capable of delivering an even greater range of emotions and of inhabiting more complex dramatic scenarios than the relatively monotone ramblings composers frequently give them to communicate.

There are lessons to be learned from the repertory that musicians and singers in circulation at the moment know and play well. Why have we lost the sense of a Norma, for example? A character who undergoes a real journey not only through disappointment and great adversity but also through the whole range of human and musical emotions. There is something to be recovered from the soprano assoluta role, even if she is not composed as the Everest of opera.

This Alice is a little lost lamb in her wonderland
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hertzberg is one of the most exciting composers experimenting with narrative musical forms that I have encountered of late. I’m eager to see where his talent evolves and where his vision takes him. I hope he manages to marry his highly articulate flights of fancy with something that is also rooted in the ground of an even more fleshful human experience. If The Wake World is any indication, Hertzberg has it in him.

– Lei & Lui

The reflection pool at the Barnes Foundation with a Wake World installation
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

"The Language of the Wake World is silence," Aleister Crowley
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

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