Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Last Days of Disco

April 10, 2011

Alan Held and Waltraud Meier Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

Second Viennese School operas are getting a lot of play in New York this month with Alban Berg’s Wozzeck now onstage at The Metropolitan Opera and Schoenberg’s Erwartung having just completed a run across the Lincoln Center Plaza at New York City Opera as part of a trilogy program entitled “Monodramas.” Both evenings are successful ones if not necessarily for the same reasons. Of course, the big story since Wozzeck opened earlier this week is the return of maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine to the pit following a sequence of ongoing health issues and cancellations this winter that have led to his departure from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and fueled countless rumors about his future engagements. Here’s what’s curious to me, though. I’ve not followed Levine’s career for most of his 40 years at the Met in New York. Honestly, I’ve had little exposure to his live performances until the last five years or so and can honestly say I don’t have much appreciation for his long and storied history with the Met. And though I’d say I’ve always found his conducting in recent years respectable and of a high quality, I’ve never quite gotten all the fuss about his comings and goings. His Wagner conducting to me seems rather turgid and overwrought at this point, though not without perspective. But I’ll admit Saturday night’s Wozzeck is the first time I think I’ve really gotten what people are so worked up about. Levine led the orchestra in a performance that was on fire. The detail was amazing and dynamics and contrast at times overwhelming. It was one of the best performances I’ve heard from this world-class orchestra in one shocker of an opera to begin with.

Onstage was an excellent cast of vocalists as well. There aren’t many opera performers like Waltraud Meier, and her Marie was up to her own unique set of standards. Meier seems submerged in her characters almost to a point beyond recognition. The steel and power of her voice were immense and the torment in her relationships was palpable. Alan Held stars in the title role. The American bass-baritone took over the role in this production after Matthias Goerne dropped out earlier this year revisiting the role he last sang here in 2005. I’ve always enjoyed seeing him perform and here he was tragic and heartbreaking. He's a big man, and his towering size over many in the cast helped emphasize his character's increasing alienation from the world. There were numerous superlative performances in the supporting cast as well including the malicious doctor, Walter Fink, and the malevolent Drum Major, Stuart Skelton. Mark Lamos’s stark 1997 production is still effective despite its staccato rhythm given that the curtain must be dropped for each scene change - a total of 14 times in 90 minutes. Luckily there are two more performances left next week for those who haven't seen it yet.

Cyndia Sieden and ensemble Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2011

Meanwhile, New York City Opera closed up its run of “Monodramas” on Friday with an unusual staging of three 20th-century works, none of which are known for being easy to access. Each of the three segments in “Monodramas” featured a work for solo soprano. The first was La Machine de L’Etre byJohn Zorn, a 10 minute work without text referencing the work of Antonin Artaud. Anu Komsi worked the syllables in the piece to great effect amid a surreal design that fit perfectly into Artaud's world. Two disaffected young people, a man and woman, in suits enter a crowd of figures dressed in burkas. They disrobe a few of these figures to reveal a man in a red suit and Komsi among others. As the singing continues large word balloons arise from below postulating a visual language of cartoon drawings in the place of actual words for this work of abstracted sounds. Zorn's short piece directly segued into a staged version of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Several of the burka clad figures are now disrobed to reveal young women in romantic white dresses including Kara Shay Thomson who sang the sole part in this work. She gave a solid, very listenable performance and maintained consistent tone throughout. She is surrounded by a torrent of falling red petals. In a smart bit of staging, director Michael Counts works the physical story on stage backwards. Initially, the protagonist seems oblivious to the dead male body on stage. However over the course of the monologue, he eventually comes back to life stands up and Thomson pulls the knife out of his chest re-enacting her murder of him in reverse order. It was good looking, but I felt Schoenberg’s music was missing a dark edge and some detail here under George Manahan's conducting.

The highpoint of this evening though was the concluding bizarre staging of Morton Feldman’s Neither. Soprano Cyndia Sieden handled Beckett’s obtuse text and Feldman’s monochromatic lines with clarity and ease in a floor length black gown. She was situated in a room covered with holographic-style wallpaper and a cadre of more young men and women in suits. Soon numerous mirrored cubes descend from the ceiling spinning at different rates to the fascination of all involved. I can’t tell you what it all meant, but it sure looked cool. And somehow it generated dramatic tension. There was enough foreboding in the activities of the black-suited ensemble, one of whom would periodically fly above the stage and hover for stretches, to imply some anxiety around unexplained past or future events. None of it looked outright silly, which is certainly a risk in these kinds of productions. And "Monodramas" in the end did achieve some sense of unity between its three female protagonists, all attempting to be understood with language that isn't quite sufficient for the task. Plus as a reminder of the legacy of Schoenberg and Berg, it couldn't have come at a more opportune time.

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