New York Production of David Lang’s New Opera Engulfs the Audience

23/06/2019

David Lang, prisoner of the state: Soloists, New York Philharmonic / Jaap van Zweden (conductor). David Geffen Hall, New York City, 7.6.2019. (DS)

David Lang’s prisoner of the state (c) Chris Lee)

Production:

Director – Elkhanah Pulitzer
Scenic designer – Matt Saunders
Lighting designer – Maarten Warmerdam
Costume designer – Maline Casta
Choir director – Donald Nally

Cast:

The Assistant – Julie Mathevet
The Jailor – Eric Owens
The Governor – Alan Oke
The Prisoner – Jarrett Ott
Guards – Matthew Pearce, John Matthew Myers, Steve Eddy, Rafael Porto
Chorus of Prisoners – Men of the Concert Chorale of New York

There is something deeply appealing about an opera staged in a concert hall. It can satisfy two desires at once: to experience instrumental interpretation in equal proportion to theatrical dialogue. That is, if it is done well. The New York Philharmonic’s version of David Lang’s prisoner of the state (2019) achieved a perfect balance, signaling an organically binding relationship between musical score and action.

The entire stage was surrounded in a rough, barbed-wire prison cage, from floor to ceiling rafters. While the musicians warmed up, singers in the chorus of yellow-jumpsuited prisoners stretched, walked back and forth, and settled into character on a second level platform above the stage. The orchestra was split down the middle — like the parting of the Red Sea — to allow soloists to move back and forth between them. And, not surprisingly, the dynamic music director, Jaap van Zweden, emerged from behind a prison gate between these two orchestral halves to walk directly up to the podium. Even before the first note from his baton, an operatic experience was in action.

This spatial blending of music and theater added punch to Lang’s already formidable message. Whether in physical chains or holding the key to a jail cell, we are all prisoners — shifting our roles to somehow survive the power structures that rule our daily lives. The score was vintage Lang, with its greatest element being a skillfully composed sense of dread and suspense. Lang matched a lyrically minimalist motif with the flow of the singers’ melody  —reminiscent of the rapport between instrumentation and soloist in The Whisper Opera, which he composed in 2013.

The singers fully realized the whole production. Each of the four soloists added a unique vocal timbre into the conversation, conveying both reality and humanist diversity.

As the Assistant, soprano Julie Mathevet coupled cooled innocence with a subtle vibrato, hinting at hopeful determination to believe in the existence of love. As the Governor, tenor Alan Oke accelerated his piercing tone into a burnished metallic sound that expressed both the character’s evil nature and paranoid political station. And baritone Jarrett Ott gave the Prisoner a metronomically exact vibrato, matched with a deliberate thinning of tone —  slowly exhausted — that mirrored his character’s weakening state of existence.

Finally, and undoubtedly the most successful performance of the evening, was bass-baritone Eric Owens as the Jailor, and arguably the libretto’s main character. His voice pulled deeply from the wells of humanity, projecting out into the audience as if to extend the stage far beyond the walls of the concert hall. As his character shifted from a place of formidable power to that of a conflicted underling of a murderous state, his voice transformed with the kind of artistic timing that comes along only a handful of times in a generation. To be in Owens’s vocal grip, alongside the sense of engulfment in Lang’s accelerating score, made prisoner of the state the kind of experience that glues an audience to its chair, only to bring it to its feet at the end.

Daniele Sahr

Comments

Comments

  1. Linda Way says:

    Daniele, Thank you for sharing this beautifully written, wonderful review! It sounds relevant and inspiring! Hope we can see each other sometime soon.
    Linda

Leave a Reply

Recent Reviews

Season Previews

__________________________________
  • NEW! Edinburgh Usher Hall 2019-2020 Orchestral Season __________________________________
  • NEW! Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2020 Ring Cycles __________________________________
  • NEW! Ex Cathedra’s 50th Anniversary Season in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Geneva Grand Théâtre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! 2019-20 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden __________________________________
  • NEW! City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Musikfest Berlin 2019 from 30 August to 19 September __________________________________
  • NEW! Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Zurich Opera House in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! English National Opera in 2019-2020 __________________________________
  • NEW! ENB in 2019-2020 and Updates on their New London City Island Home __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music and Other Events at the Southbank Centre in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • UPDATED! Cleveland Orchestra in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Classical Music at the Barbican in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! The Met: Live in HD in 2019-20 __________________________________
  • NEW! Carnegie Hall 2019-2020 Season Highlights __________________________________
  • NEW! Venus Unwrapped: Kings Place’s Year-Long Focus on Women Composers __________________________________
  • Subscribe to Free Review Summary Newsletter

    Reviews by Reviewer

    News and Featured Articles

    __________________________________
  • NEW! SOPRANO ANGELA GHEORGHIU IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • NEW! Opera Loki’s Madam Butterfly can be seen in Alton and London this September __________________________________
  • NEW! The Joys of the Marlboro Music Festival: Chamber Music’s Best-Kept Secret __________________________________
  • NEW! MATTHEW BOURNE’S ROMEO AND JULIET IN CINEMAS FROM 22 OCTOBER __________________________________
  • NEW! CELLIST JOHANNES MOSER IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN __________________________________
  • NEW! CHORUS MASTER STEPHEN DOUGHTY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • REVIEWED! Ron Howard’s Pavarotti in Cinemas 13 July (Preview) and Nationwide (15 July) __________________________________
  • MULTI-FACETED MUSICIAN JOY LISNEY IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE __________________________________
  • ‘MUSICAL MAGIC’: AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST HENNING KRAGGERUD __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR THOMAS SANDERLING IN CONVERSATION WITH GREGOR TASSIE __________________________________
  • CONDUCTOR ÁDÁM FISCHER IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH GERMAN SOPRANO PETRA LANG __________________________________
  • HOW TO CONTACT SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL __________________________________
  • A Q&A WITH ITALIAN BARITONE FRANCO VASSALLO __________________________________
  • Search S&H

    Archives by Week

    Archives by Month