photo by Grace Beahm
An opera with music and libretto by Leoš Janáček
Sottile Theater, Charleston, SC
May 24 to June 6, part of Spoleto USA
Directed by Garry Hynes; conducted by Anne Manson
The staging: Spare “modern” design—Ikea-like—a blond wooden safe deposit box, a Lutheran cross as solitary as a Jewish coffin (no nails or metals, slats fitted into slats).
Mama-in-law villainess, a Cruella with glasses and wig like Mother Bates, all hips and housedress and walking stick. What a delight to play! The audience even boos and hisses her on her curtain call!
A rectilinear grid of shadows; everyone walks in straight lines and turns tight corners like soldiers at march. Except the foundling—Kát’a’s only friend—who is choreographed to walk on a diagonal or in a sort of parabola, her steps lightly tracing the wooden whorls rubbed smooth and invisible by her everyday rut.
Stagehands dressed as maids in the half-light. Diary leaves tossed into bird wings.
Tropes of Eastern European folk tales, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White—all those Evil Stepmothers (here abetted by a drunken Uncle like a misbegotten winged monkey). Thumb pricked, apple bitten; and Kát’a? She gets a keyhole to the “far part of the garden” where the raspberries grow. So both fruit and thorn.
A comment might be made about Klingon opera, which is caterwauled here against lilting folk song, lullaby, pulsing monotony, and Eastern European peasant melancholy. This works for me. This is my lack of musical history education revealed.
The lovers’ first eye-to-eye connection is thrown across a diagonal, upstage to down! But their love scene is performed offstage. This seems odd, sung from the wings.
In Gate Theatre’s play seen the night before—Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel”—the only real action, the not-really villainess falling off a cliff, happens offstage also—what’s that called in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare where the gore occurs in the wings?
Kát’a collapses to her face on the planks, dust returned to spare Lutheran cruciform dust. No graven images here. Little heat had simmered between the doomed lovers anyway. Symbols leeched of blood and guts. A Protestant experience.
I notice that the characters encountered so far during my week of Spoleto are all full of death and darkness. Cousin Rachel falls off a cliff. Noble Enoch Arden pines away for love. PB Shelley’s “genius” who inspired Respighi’s “Il Tramonto” withers in the sun. Fall pine wither. With nature imagery. Poisons and nightshades. But Kát’a’s death alone occurs with agency. She alone takes her fate in her own hands and jumps.
photo Spoleto Festival USA
An opera with music by Michael Nyman and libretto by Victoria Hardie
Dock Street Theatre, Charleston, SC
May 25 to June 7, part of Spoleto USA
Directed by Ong Keng Sen; conducted by John Kennedy
Here I sit at the intersection of film scores and Minimalism. Philip Glass is here. For Koyaanisquatsi I suppose. And for that awful film adaptation of “The Hours.” I mean Kidman was a horrible Virginia Woolf. Who else? John Adams. His previously existing works were used in “I Am Love.” He seems to appropriate cinematic ideas into “Naïve and Sentimental Music.” George Antheil. Hi. He composed for film as early as the 1930s. He was so cute at that age. And here’s Bernard Hermann’s score for 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” when Michael Rennie was ill. Not sure that one counts.
I’ve loved the films I’ve seen that use Michael Nyman scores. “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” is deservingly legendary. Oh shit I just gushed. I’m not a fan of gushing. But what Nino Rota was to Fellini, Nyman has been to Peter Greenaway.
I boned up on Nyman’s “serious” music to prepare for this opera. Found myself drawn to the “Double Concerto for Saxophone and Trombone” and “Trombone Concerto” but I didn’t care for the tinkly tinkly of “Harpsichord Concerto.” These are valuable things to find out.
Sung in English. The libretto by Victoria Hardie interests me more than the staging. Sort of a queasy flipbook through a specific history. A raked stage puzzles the woman seated next to Neil, as it did others I have overheard in conversations around town. Raking the stage of the Dock Street Theater, a building Charlestonians hold sacred, must be sacrilege. Roiling projections on the scrim become oppressive and overcome the singers. Rorschach marbelizations with live camerawork from the rafters incorporated like I’ve seen in the work of Cathy Weis and others. Without these projections, however, there seems little reason for any staging at all. Could just be five people standing around, singing their Klingon guts out.
The stage seems too cramped, especially now that angel-winged craniometrists have entered. The singers are only just precariously balancing those things, and I know how cramped those wings are. Wings within wings! Stanley Kunitz: “ … over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.” The singers’ voices imply a kind of grandeur that needs a larger stage.
Craniometrists, biotechnologists, racial profilers. Not listed as characters but as voices, except for a stand-in for Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, here an “Art Banker” who at some time searched for Goya’s skull. Apparently, this really happened. Goya may or may not have had his skull removed from his body and hidden so nobody could steal his brain. Goya’s painting of La Maja Desnuda is referenced in costume and recreated in choreography. The racially diverse casting is a coup.
And glitz. Glittered skull headdresses that make the singers wobble. Crayola sugar skull weebles and football helmets. Pez heads.
“Scientists are the artists now.” How does Goya intersect Leonardo and Darwin. Did I miss something? Leonardo’s proportions of the human figure vs. Darwin’s monkey to man. Topical when positioned against the current agitation of creationists and proponents of “intelligent design.” How would intelligent design intersect Hitler’s coming master race, racial purity, eugenics, final solution, genocide, xenophobia. The red menace. The yellow peril. The white man’s burden.
Something about Quattrocento perspective on the projected scrim references Leonardo. The Art Banker attends the Nazis’ Entartete Kunst show.
As always at Spoleto it is a pleasure counting the number of walkouts. Is the score not pretty enough, too challenging, too monotonous? Are Jewish patrons disturbed by the Nazi salute? As a Queer, it’s pretty fucked up to me. Inserting the salute here is also a rather brilliant touch. I count 5 bodies down by the time actual newsreel footage of Hitler comes along. Colorized for some reason, but that adds to its sickenance. That’s not a word. You pretty much need to reference Hitler when talking eugenics.
As the house lights come up, the woman seated next to Neil comments on the sequencing of DNA and wonders what kind of impact it will have on our lives. “Thankfully,” she says, “I won’t live long enough to know.” And then, you know what happens? After Neil and I get home, I try to catch up on the news by surfing my usual blogs. A story comes up about how, somewhere in Germany, van Gogh’s ear has been reconstructed in a jar using DNA from a descendant of brother Theo and 3D printing. Eerie. Ear-y—get it? I crack myself up.