Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Portland Opera posts uneven double bill of works by David Lang

Photo by Cory Weaver
Portland Opera’s presentation of two works by David Lang was an uneven affair on opening night (July 28) at the Newmark Theatre. While Jerry Mouawad’s direction of “The Little Match Girl Passion” was convincing and enhanced the music and communicated the story brilliantly, his staging of “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” ran into a rut that didn’t elevate Lang’s repetitious score. Both productions benefited from high-caliber singing that would have been more effective if it weren’t for the very dry acoustic of the hall.

Based on a short story by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Match Girl Passion” tells how a girl, dies on the street during a cold New Year’s Eve after not being able to sell matches to support her family. Before dying she wonderful visions of her grandmother, warmth, plenty to eat, and a Christmas tree. Interspersed with the story line is reflective text that functions as commentary in much the same way that the chorales in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”

Mouawad’s vision realized the story with the Little Match Girl (Max Young) as the center of attention with four spirits or angels (Lisa Williamson, Hannah Penn, Martin Bakari, and Christian Zaremba) nearby and four more (Cree Carrico, Nicole Mitchell, Ernest Jackson Jr., and Damien Geter) with two stationed on either side at the front of the stage where they periodically played percussion instruments. To play the townspeople and family members, Mouawad effectively used an ensemble of “movers” who pantomimed from the sides and whose shadows were projected on a very large sheet.

Designed by Shana Targosz, the costuming featured women singers in opulent robes and tiaras that reminded me a little of the Statue of Liberty. The male singers looked more medieval in their robes, probably because of the hoods. The singers evoked the mystical in contrast to the movers who wore traditional Nineteenth Century garb.

The singing was lusher and more radiant than I had expected – given the sparseness of the Lang’s score and the dryness of the hall. Conductor Hal France cued everything with grace, and the glorious ringing of the glockenspiel enhanced the image of the Little Match Girl joining her grandmother in a better place.
Photo by Cory Weave
Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s one-page story set in the Antebellum South, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” offered a curious mixture of sung and spoken text to the accompaniment of a string quartet consisting of players from the Portland Opera Orchestra. The story concerns the disappearance of Mr. Williamson (Michael Streeter) while crossing a field in plain view of his family, neighbors, and slaves.

The libretto by Mac Wellman expanded upon the situation to relate how the witnesses understood (or not) what they saw. Mrs. Williamson (Hannah Penn) gradually lost her mind. Her daughter – the Williamson Girl (Cree Carrico) seemed to go even further by repeatedly asking about the mystery of the place where they live (Selma, Alabama). The Magistrate (Todd Van Voris) dismissed the testimony of Armour Wren (Allen Nause) and endured the demonstrative statements of overseer Andrew (Christian Zaremba). Boy Sam (Martin Bakari) became overwrought by the incident, but Virginia Creeper (Lisa Williamson), Old Woman (Nicole Mitchell), and the other slaves (Laila Murphy, Ernest Jackson Jr, and Damien Geter) felt that Mr. Williamson just entered another dimension (“It goes into a dark hole into the bottom of the sea”).

Wrapped up in the story were references to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and John C. Calhoun’s guidelines for how to brutally control slaves. There were repetitive lines about building a nation and an erasure (perhaps of slavery though that was not exactly stated). The Williamson Girl seemed to want to erase everything when she repeated denounced all of the “crap” that people said.

The singers made a strong case for each of their arias, but their words didn’t gain profundity each time they were repeated. The repetitive musical lines from the string quartet, which played very well, were not all that compelling either. Mouawad’s directions had the performers walking slowly around and back and forth across a sparse stage that consisted of a raised platform and chairs. The whole enterprise seemed to sink under its own weight despite the most energetic gestures of conductor Hal France.
Photo by Cory Weave
It should be noted that Penn used her considerable acting talent and rich mezzo to give her role as much depth as was possible. Bakari had several fine moments as well. Unfortunately, the acclaimed versatility of Carrico’s voice was stunted by the incredibly dry acoustic of the theater.

Bottom line: both pieces exposed the thin veneer of civilization, but “The Little Match Girl Passion” was much more effective in doing so than “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.”

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