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.
In this production, the emotional intimacy of the two women is made more explicit, with overt physical affection. The story is replete with rich themes exploring identity, the nature of art, love, ambivalence about children, and the limitations of human communication. Bergman wrote his screenplay after he had just undergone an operation. He found himself fascinated with anesthesia, in the sense that he was simultaneously present and not there.
But throughout the performance, the question kept occurring to me: Why make Persona into an opera? Doesn't that require all the characters to sing? If Elisabet were silent amongst a much larger cast of characters, her lacking a voice would be less of a concern; indeed, her silence might stand out as even louder than others’ voices. But the other characters—the doctor, the husband--are incidental at best.
To pull this off, and not see Elisabet's silence as a detriment, one would need an Alma with a unique and virtuosic voice that, on its own, could carry the entire musical score as a tour-de-force. And one would need an Elisabet who, even in stony silence, could command the stage with her mere physical presence, perhaps by featuring an actual “star" or a "celebrity."
But this is not the dynamic at hand. While both principal actresses give good performances (Crider has a confident mezzo), they are also halting and hesitant, as if this were still a work in development and they were still working on blocking.
Logistically, because the small set is already congested with a long sofa, a dinner table and chairs, tall light stands for umbrella lights, and video monitors, the boom or the cameraman often obscures our view, even if we are just a few feet from the action. It can be frustrating. The set-up may have worked better if the space were bigger.
The one time the room grows deafeningly hushed, and Amanda Crider compels the audience to hold its breath and listen to every word she sings, is when she recounts the story of how one day, though married, she and a friend were sunbathing naked on a beach when two young boys approached them, and then the women seduced the boys. Sister Alma tells the story in shockingly graphic terms. In fact, the monologue’s intensity is the reason the movie was censored when it was first released 50 years ago.
Despite the tentative performances, the muscular music by Keeril Makan undergirds the emotional ups and downs of the story, and is performed confidently by new music ensemble Either/Or, under the direction of Evan Ziporyn. There is a creeping menace to the music, which accords with many people calling the original movie a psychological horror story.
There are many fine things about this production, but it needs a bigger voice.
(More photos can be found here.)