‘Monodramas’ from New York City Opera

“Monodramas” by Zorn, Schoenberg and Feldman : George Manahan (conductor), Michael Counts (Production Director and Set Designer), New York City Opera, David A. Koch Theatre, New York City, 27.3.2011 (BH)

John Zorn : La Machine de l’etre (2000)
: Erwartung (1909)
: Neither (1977)

Anu Komsi, soprano
Kara Shay Thomson, soprano
Cyndia Sieden, soprano
Conductor: George Manahan

Production Director/Set Designer: Michael Counts
Choreographer: Ken Roht
Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn
Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel
Associate Lighting Designer: Jeff Harris
Animation Designers for La Machine de l’etre: Beehive, Ada Whitney, Marcelo Cardoso, James Bartley, Luke Lamborn, Tommy Shull
Video Artist for Entr’acte: Jennifer Steinkamp

Anu Komsi in La Machine de l’etre

In staging three works—at least two of which are overtly abstract—New York City Opera took an enormous risk, and it’s a pleasure to write that it mostly paid off. For a major artistic institution, staging this trilogy is an artistic decision to be observed, discussed, admired—and replicated. The wistful part first: I wish I’d enjoyed John Zorn’s La Machine de l’être more fully; the bustling score seemed almost un-Zorn-like in its atonality. The title was inspired by a sketch from Antonin Artaud, and in his spirit, the cadre of animation designers used two cartoon dialogue balloons (floating above the characters’ heads), on which were projected engaging animations to complement Artaud’s graphics. Imagine the characters onstage talking in pictograms. A chorus dressed in black burkas only increased the inscrutability factor. Plotless, and without text (the singer intones “ah” in various guises), Zorn’s brief essay made a fine curtain-raiser, but it was Ms. Komsi’s death-defying high soprano that made the ten minutes or so worth hearing.


Kara-Shay-Thomson in Erwartung

The afternoon took a giant leap, however, with Schoenberg’s Erwartung , beautifully sung by Kara Shay Thomson, but moreover, given a fascinating perspective by Michael Counts that made me rethink the piece. The story concerns a woman wandering in a forest, finds her lover dead and may (or may not) have murdered him. Counts’s set design was simplicity itself: a single horizon on the back wall, a tiny house in the distance, with a constant shower of leaves, falling from above. His fascinating staging imagined at least part of the tale being told in reverse: in the closing pages, a half-dozen women “fold” back into Ms. Thomson (i.e., her frightened self, fractured into multiple personalities), the body on the ground sprang up, and he and she, facing each other, walked backward, away from each other offstage. This is as valid and intriguing a take on this work as I’ve ever experienced, and Ms. Thomson was thrilling, with conductor George Manahan eliciting a wondrously satisfying performance from the NYCO musicians.

The Ensemble in Morton Feldman's Neither

But Counts and Manahan saved the best for last with Neither, Morton Feldman’s hour-long exploration of stasis with texts by Samuel Beckett. In the wrong hands, this “opera” could completely crash and burn: the words—fascinating as they are—are all but unintelligible, given the high tessitura and syllabic dissection Feldman subjects them to. In his notes, Paul Griffiths describes “a music of hovering,” and the singer and orchestra seem interlocked in gentle repetitions that seem to continue to infinity. Here, the set design was perfectly suited to the material. Walls on three sides had a silver metallic finish dusted with rainbows when flooded with light, and from above the stage descended perhaps two dozen mirrored cubes of various sizes, turning slowly as they lowered—sometimes just above the heads of the singers, at other times floating just a few inches off the stage floor, while the cast—formally clad in black—slowly wandered through the shimmering landscape. Singer Cyndia Sieden, pressed to the top of her range at all times, deftly managed the difficult feat of landing the notes without showing any strain, despite having to sustain slow, highly controlled movement. And here again, the orchestra flooded the hall with Feldman’s gently pulsing chords, in a spectacular display of aural iridescence.

Bruce Hodges

All Pictures © Carol Rosegg