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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Opera Review: Three Faces of the Void

City Opera experiments with Monodramas.
Soprano Anu Komsi in La Machine d'etre.
Photo by Carol Rosegg ©2011 New York City Opera
On Friday night, the City Opera unveiled Monodramas, a triptych of modern operas, each with a single female protagonist. Though two of the works lacked anything resembling a plot, it was a fascinating evening of experimental opera--a bold gesture from a company that nearly went dark two years ago.

La Machine d'etre, ("The Machine of Existence") led off, the first opera by downtown jazz-rebel John Zorn. This was the world premiere of Mr. Zorn's piece, and served as the City Opera debut of soprano Anu Komsi. She was slowly unwrapped, appearing like a Wagner heroine to sing wordless melismas against Mr. Zorn's jagged rhythms and shifting tonal palette.

The plotless work, inspired by the drawings of Antonin Artaud, opened with a memorable image: the City Opera company concealed and rendered genderless by gray burkhas. The performance featured Mr. Artaud's illustrations, animated above the stage on two "flying" cartoon word-balloons. Beneath them, Ms. Komsi displayed an impressive vocal technique. It would be pleasing to learn how this Finnish soprano sounds when she has words to sing.
Kara Shay Thomson, lost in the woods in Erwartung.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 New York City Opera
Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung is the only familiar opera on this program. Written in 1909, it is the story of a nameless woman (Kara Shay Thomson, in her company debut) lost in a forest at night. Veering on the edge of madness, she encounters the dead body of her lover. Schoenberg's expressionist score captures the madness and torment of the woman. Ms. Thomson's performance was that of a promising dramatic soprano, navigating her big voice through the tricky, and often exposed passages of the half-hour work.

George Manahan emphasized the rich, melodic content of Schoenberg's score, and the City Opera orchestra was in top form. As with the first work, Ms. Thomson was slowly revealed from beneath her burkha. She was surrounded by a small group of silent, female doppelgangers, all wearing identical white dresses, a memorable image. The most mind-blowing moment of Erwartung arrived in the closing bars: an imaginative, superbly executed time-reversal effect that stopped the opera in its tracks.
Cynthia Sieden (left) and the mirrored boxes of neither.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2011 New York City Opera
neither is an apt title for the final work on the program, a lengthy excursion into form and function by American minimalist Morton Feldman. Feldman is an expert at writing stretched-out textures on an enormous canvas. (His String Quartet No. 2 lasts six hours if you play all the repeats.) neither is a setting of a text by Samuel Beckett, and true to this composer's style, each word is stretched out to its breaking point over a series of repeated figures in the orchestra.

Cynthia Sieden did a commendable job of singing the work, a formidable task since she had to hit the same pitch again and again for the first half with absolutely no melodic or harmonic development. The words are stretched distorted to the point where not even the supertitles help with comprehension.

The stage action featured skilled physical movement, at a glacial pace that recalled the productions of Robert Wilson. The action, such as it was, took place inside an iridescent, shimmering cube, adorned with colored lights and 66 (I counted) mysterious mirrored boxes that raised and lowered slowly from the ceiling, hanging in mid-air like miniature avatars of the 2001 monolith. It looked really cool. And it was all very mysterious.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.