Opera Feed

"You Us We All" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano


(All photographs by Steven Pisano.)

Shara Worden has done it again. Best known as the lead singer of My Brightest Diamond, Worden brought her new faux opera You Us We All last weekend to the BAM Harvey Theater. Based on the frivolous court masques of the seventeenth-century, You Us We All fuses ideals from the Baroque and the modern day, in a way that's both varied and eccentric.

The opera, which was directed by Andrew Ondrejcak, showed its quirky face from the time upon one’s entrance into the theater -- its narrative does not “begin,” but instead gives the feeling that it's already been happening and is only continuing for an audience to participate in. Its set is modest, having only a fairly vacant (but shiny) stage with lucite chairs placed in a disheveled manner, a screen with the words “Thee” and “Nd.” written on it, and a man in his underwear and a white ruff laying face down on the ground. (He is "Time", a humorous drunkard played by Carlos Soto.) Its futuristic appearance, characterized by a multitude of images on a display which resembled a Mac computer monitor, gives no hint to a specific location -- instead presenting the illusion of a place in which no time or space passes. Thus, location is less specific than metaphysical, a "place" in which all human emotion is centralized.

The five performers were meant to embody five ideals: Love (Martin Gerke), Death (Bernhard Landauer), Hope (Worden), Virtue (Helga Davis), and Time (Carlos Soto). But the names were mostly arbitrary. The songs each sang did little to illustrate his or her nature. The great delight of the show was Ms. Worden herself: her voice is a glorious and supple instrument that stimulates the pleasure center of the brain like an intravenous blast of endorphins.  When she sang a series of coyly couched songs to pop icons such as Beyonce, Britney Spears, and Mariah Carey—eliciting simultaneous smiles and groans from the audience—there was nothing to be got from them, except mild amusement.

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"Hagoromo" at Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano

Hagormo at BAM(All photos by Ross Karre Arts Documentation.)

Part theater, part dance, part chamber opera, Hagoromo, which played last week to sold-out houses at BAM’s Harvey Theater, is based on a centuries-old Japanese legend that is a staple of Noh theater. It is a slim story about grand themes, partly about the ephemerality of beauty and art, and partly about the spirituality of the mortal versus the eternal.

Developed by America Opera Projects and directed by David Michalek, the production gathers together dancers, musicians, singers, and puppeteers to form a multi-art whole. At the center of it all is retired New York City Ballet (NYCB) principal dancer Wendy Whelan as the tennin. The work was created by Michalek specifically for her (they are married). The fisherman was performed by another NYCB principal dancer alum, Jock Soto.

But, dance aficionados expecting City Ballet fireworks from two such eminent ballet luminaries as Whelan and Soto, could not help but be a little disappointed by a production adhering closer to Noh traditions than to the flights of Balanchine. There was much graceful movement to be sure, but little of what could be described as dancing, even at the climax of the story when the tennin performs her celebrated celestial dance for the simple fisherman.

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"Persona," a New Opera: Finding a Voice at National Sawdust

by Steven Pisano Lacey Dorn and Eve Gigliotti in "Persona"(All photographs by Steven Pisano.)

Last weekend at National Sawdust, Williamsburg's hip new venue for contemporary music, Beth Morrison Projects presented Persona, a new chamber opera based on the 1965 Ingmar Bergman film with music by Rome Prize-winning composer Keeril Makan, a libretto by Jay Scheib (who also directed), and starring Amanda Crider, Lacey Dorn, Eve Gigliotti, and Joshua Jeremiah.

The production takes place in a room dominated by a camera on a swinging boom, which follows the characters around the stage. We in the audience watch the actors on stage, but we also watch the cameraman filming the actors, and we view on the different monitors the video that the cameraman has captured--all simultaneously. (Production support for cameras and monitors was by Joshua Higgason, Kim Madalinski, and Ashley Tata.)

The inevitable questions are raised. What is real? Who is the observer? What part do we the audience play?

Persona is essentially the story of two women, one who is mute, and one who can’t shut up (or, in this case, stop singing.) We first meet Elisabet Vogler (Dorn) in a hospital. A noted stage actress, Dorn one day suddenly stopped talking during a performance of the play Electra. Sister Alma (Crider), a nurse, is assigned the task of getting the actress to talk again.

The closeness of the two characters can be argued to be the duality of a single personality. Indeed, near the end of the story, Elisabet’s husband comes to visit her and mistakes Alma for his wife, and makes love to her. So maybe both women are the same person. Or, maybe not.

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"Joan of Arc at the Stake" at New York Philharmonic

by Steven Pisano

Photo by Chris Lee.

Oratorios are a tricky business. On the one hand, it can seem unsettling for a symphony orchestra to present an oratorio, which has a great deal of purely spoken dialogue not accompanied by music. And yet, because the drama is usually more suggestive than explicit, there is often not enough “action” for an opera company to produce it without it seeming skimpily staged. (Peter Sellars' St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Phil was a rare exception to the rule.)

The New York Philharmonic’s final production of the season is Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s 1930s oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake (Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher). This week's four performances have all been sold out for some time, presumably thanks to the presence of Academy Award-winning actor Marion Cotillard in the title role. Cotillard is spellbinding as Joan, the young “Maid of Orleans” who led France to victory in an important battle of the Hundred Years’ War, only to be captured and burned alive at the stake. Watching Cotillard's performance on Wednesday, I knew I was in the presence of something very special.

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