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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Opera Review: A Cabinet of Carnage

David Lang goes for the gut (literally) with anatomy theater.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
'This pity she's a corpse: Marc Kudisch and Peabody Southwell share
a tender moment in anatomy theater. Photo by Craig T. Mathew amd James Matthew Daniel.

It started with beer and sausage. On arriving at the downtown Brooklyn space BRIC, I checked my coat and was directed to the blacked-out "surgeon's lounge" for tankards of Brooklyn Lager and the aforementioned wurst, served on hard rolls slathered with mustard by pretty, in character serving-girls. Then a funeral drum beat its merciless tattoo and the waitresses turned savage. 

"Looks like we’re about to have a hanging!" one exulted as the accused was marched through the stunned, slack-jawed audience. Another cried "String her up!" This ungainly forced death march was the opening salvo of David Lang’s new work anatomy theater, an unblinking examination of criminal punishment and the worst things that can happen to human remains after death. A harrowing ninety minutes, it delves deep into the questionable 18th century practice of using the corpses of murderers for the further meant if human knowledge, particularly in the difficult field of gross anatomy.

We were ushered into the theater, and invited to leave our tankards outside. A helpful sign informed us of nudity, blood, and a simulated hanging that would happen therein. Beneath a noose, the condemned, one Sarah Osborne stood, eyes glittering. To her left stood the hangman, covered with a black hood and backed up by two heavies in military attire. Following Sarah's final peroration from the gallows and the quick, grisly snap of her neck, the hangman was revealed to be on Joshua Crouch, the bloodthirsty emcee of a chamber of horrors. This was the anatomy theater where Ms. Osborne would be dissected for the paying public.

As Sarah, mezzo Peabody Southwell brought power and dignity the role of a woman who was indeed a murderess, though driven to her crime by abuse at the hands of her late husband. This was a terrifying performance as she showed the human being beneath Sarah's tough veneer and drew compassion for her miserable fate. In the second half, she lay motionless on a slab, her viscera being apparently removed. The removal of her heart led to this opera’s most haunting moment as the mutilated corpse began to sing like an angel once more.

Baritone Marc Kudisch brought showmanship to the role of Crouch, drawing in Broadway experience and a big charismatic stage presence, kind of a sleazy, glittery Mephistopheles. All the singers wore face mics to compensate for the acoustic shortcomings of the BRIC space. it would be interesting g to hear this snarling, hissing performance without amplification. Mr. Kudisch played Crouch to the hilt, part carnival barker, part leering ghoul, even acting as  own defense lawyer as he drew the fascinated, repelled audience further into the abattoir.

The other players in this Grand Guignol  show were bass Robert Osborne as the bewigged Baron Peel, whose appetite for questionable medical practices seemed drawn straight from The annals of the Royal Society and the opera Wozzeck. His assistant Strang (sung by a tenor listed only as Timur in the program notes) was the only one on stage with somethings like a conscience, as he struggled to understand that Peel was a nothing more than a quack on a wild goose chase. Doggedly, Strang removed intestines, stomach, heart and uterus from the show’s leading lady, all to no apparent purpose or avail.

David Lang's spare score owes something to the experimentation of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, with its use of repetition, rhythm and  the deconstruction of words over rising crescendo chords. The libretto by Mr. Lang and collaborator Mark Dion showed a cruel desire to plunge the audience deep into the horror of experience. He remains a fearless and uncompromising composer, creating unsettling effects through the use of stark minor chords, pounding percussion and at one point a trio that sounded like a Rossini ensemble as heard through the filter of 20thcentury minimalism.

The score was played by the International Contemporary Ensemble, under the baton of Christopher Rountree. The musicians were mounted high above the butchery like a London barber over a pie shop. The visuals, curated by projection designer Laurie Olinder, were impressive, from the sleight of hand used in the eviscerations to the archaic cartoons and scientific diagrams that formed a shifting, cinematic commentary on the gruesome efforts of Peel and Crouch.

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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.