Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Crossing Over

June 20, 2011

Robin T Buck and chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011

As readers of Axel Feldheim’s excellent blog, Not for Fun Only, may know by now, my San Francisco Ring cycle viewing was broken up with two trips back to Los Angeles in between performances. And while good old-fashioned gainful employment had something to do with it, so did the desire to see the final production of Long Beach Opera’s 2011 season, David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field in its first Southern California performance. After seeing it on Saturday, I’m incredibly glad I did. Undoubtedly one of the strongest productions I’ve seen this year, LBO and its Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek put on a hugely thought provoking, elliptical, and ultimately overwhelming work. Who would have guessed that little over an hour of contemporary music would have outpaced the emotional impact of a 15-hour grand opera in the same week?

Difficulty is based on a page-long story of the same name by 19th Century American author and critic Ambrose Bierce which originally appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1888. It obliquely describes events surrounding the disappearance of a slave owner in the antebellum south in broad daylight and in full view of his wife, daughter, neighbor, and slaves while crossing an empty field. The story is not a mystery, but a fleeting rumination on the various perspectives of those who viewed the disappearance and its aftermath. The work is ironically prescient considering that Bierce’s own end is shrouded in mystery, having traveled to Mexico only to vanish himself with no record of his life, death, or further existence after 1913.

Suzan Hanson Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011

Lang’s take on this shortest of stories enriches it without losing an ounce of its mysterious functioning. While the text shaped by librettist Mac Wellman, is often quoted directly from Bierce, it is done with frequent repetition and shifting voices within the cast. The music is scored for a string quartet, the Kronos Quartet at the time of the premiere, and has three major vocal parts – Mrs. Williamson, her daughter, and Boy Sam, a slave of the Williamson’s neighbor Arthur Wren. Wren and Mr. Williamson have speaking parts in the piece and there is a small chorus of slaves. The narrative jumps, shifts, and again folds in on itself over its length, eliciting much deeper strains of meaning from the original story and drawing out a whole well of emotion out of America’s history with slavery in a rather precise and condensed package. Lang and Wellman add other strange touches as well, including an extensive part for the Williamson daughter, and textual elements such as a list of common household objects that are repeated by different characters at different times representing perhaps a memory of the past, or in other contexts, the names of slaves. It’s a profound and bewitching piece given a gold star treatment by the resourceful Long Beach company.

Mitisek turned the musical direction of the evening over to Benjamin Makino who led the Lyris Quartet and a wonderful chorus with stand-out solo turns from Amber Mercomes and Dabney Ross Jones. The soloists included Suzan Hanson as Mrs. Williamson, Eric B Anthony as Boy Sam and Valerie Vinzant as Williamson’s daughter. All of them availed themselves beautifully in Lang’s halting, haunting post-minimalist score. Best of all, these performance took place in a wonderfully designed and visually commanding production directed by Mitisek. I was a bit puzzled about how the company intended to pull off such a small chamber piece in the comparatively large Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Well the answer turned out to be by having the audience seated on stage while the company used the seating of the auditorium as its empty field. A long catwalk, lit from below, bisected the auditorium in the center running from the rear of the house to the foot of the stage. The chorus was stationed at points along the catwalk among the field of seats and would at times reach out or interact with the other cast members. The lighting, from below the catwalk became hazy and created a shimmering heaven above on the Terrace Theater’s geometrically patterned ceiling. The effect of the cavernous and mostly empty auditorium was unsettling and oppressive at times.

The three principal soloists were then placed on the orchestra riser and lifted up and down into view of the audience. Hanson’s Mrs. Williamson was placed atop a ladder, rising several feet above the stage with a huge flowing dress that occupied much of the available space to emphasize her alienation from the rest of the world. Vinzant was placed either atop a mattress or later on large sheets of drawing paper opposite Mrs. Williamson with Anthony’s Boy Sam in between. The characters floated in and out of view in a dream like state that not only complemented the music but the layered, shifting words of the text as well. It was a superb evening of opera and one that managed that achievement without a big twist or surprised ending, but one with little more than the power of suggestion and an ability to mimic the interior patterns of our own minds.


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