Three inspired sopranos undone by madness and pretentious staging in City Opera’s “Monodramas”

March 27, 2011
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Kara Shay Thomson in Schoenberg's "Erwartung," the centerpiece of New York City Opera's "Monodramas." Photo: Carol Rosegg.

When New York City Opera announced that it was staging a triple bill of “Monodramas” for solo soprano centered around Schoenberg’s Erwartung, the stage seemed set for a reckoning of sorts. A century has passed since Schoenberg’s haunting portrayal of a lone woman gone mad, examined under the lens of psychoanalysis, a science that claimed a new understanding of the female mind. It seemed a good time to take stock of how opera – once defined as the art “of undoing women” – has since changed its relation to women.

For the purposes of the NYCO production, Erwartung was framed by John Zorn’s La machine de l’etre (2000) and Morton Feldman’s Neither (1977) and entrusted to the direction of Michael Counts who drew on modern dance, video installations and laser effects to tie the three works together. Unfortunately, this overwrought and pretentious production, though, only served to perpetuate the view of a woman’s voice as an instrument of hysteria and of opera as vehicle for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching her unravel on stage.

Zorn’s work, a ten-minute explosion of vocal fireworks, runs and shrieks accompanied by a restless orchestral score, uses no words whatsoever, making it an interesting Rorschach test for any director attempting to stage it. Counts decided to hedge his bets, peopling the stage with dancers in full hijab (the silenced Muslim woman) and robotic mannequins (the objectified Western woman) while floating a huge speech bubble above them. He then filled this tableau with the animated asylum drawings of the French schizophrenic playwright and director Antonin Artaud, making madness the central message of a work its composer claims to be devoid of meaning.

Emerging from under a burka, the Finnish soprano Anu Komsi bravely battled against the weight of all these associations, armed with a luminous and athletically flexible voice. But with no words to provide any measure of rhyme or reason, the effect was more pitiful than intriguing – the spectacle of a heroine unhinged. In the end, the speech bubble ignited in a blinding burst of flames and – as if passing judgment on the proceedings – fizzed out.

By means of transition, the burkas came back into view, this time revealing soprano Kara Shay Thomson in a white fin-de-siecle dress along with a half dozen identically dressed dancers. In Erwartung, these doppelgangers became an effective metaphor for conflicting facets of the heroine’s psyche, one moment crouching over the prostate body of her lover in fascination, the next recoiling in horror. Thompson sang the part with great emotional commitment and displayed a luscious warm sound that she was able to produce evenly across the range – a requirement for a part so full of jagged jumps. One might have wished for more variety in her color palette; only a few throaty low notes provided a glimpse of a different gear.

Even though this heroine, too, is presented to us in the throes of madness, her words, at least, are those of a woman, Marie Pappenheim, a physician and writer whose cousin was a patient of Freud’s. And, however unreliable its narrator, at least she gives us a clear motive: “I will sing so that he can hear me.”

In Feldman’s Neither, an hour-long one-act opera set to a text by Samuel Beckett, there is no discernible motive at all, not least of all because there is no discernible “I.”  The text – all 17 enigmatic lines of it – reveals nothing about its speaker and may not even be intended as subjective speech. “To and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow,” it begins. And, later: “from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither.”

The quality of impenetrable “unself” is one that fits well into Feldman’s quest for “indeterminate music.”  Words are set in such a way that they are barely intelligible, mostly chopped up into isolated syllables sung in monotonous, drawn-out notes high in the soprano’s register. Cyndia Sieden delivered them with an exquisite, pure sound that seemed to come out of nowhere as it floated above the orchestra. As exposed as the part is, it requires an immense control of pitch and evenness of expression – or rather, lack thereof. Sieden managed to maintain an Apollonian level of detachment even while negotiating dozens of mirrored cubes that dangled from the ceiling and, as they rotated, refracted painful shards of light into the eyes of the audience.

The entire set for Neither was held in iridescent metallic tones — which nicely chimed with Feldman’s obsession with semitone intervals —  making it look like a very hip nightclub. The effect was further underscored by the dancers  — here all in mannequin mode – assuming various poses ranging from blasé to bewildered. Occasionally, one was hoisted up on invisible ropes, leaving him suspended in mid-air. The whole opera feels like an out-of-body experience, beautiful though it is in long passages. On the subject of women and opera it has nothing to say, withdrawing instead into a realm of abstraction and timelessness that some might call cowardice.

It was the irony of Counts’ production, then, that with all the visual overload and multimedia wizardry, he gave the audience license to look rather than listen. As for the three young sopranos, they were in exactly the same spot as opera singers of the past: undressed, exposed, prodded to madness, and bidden to sing like there’s no tomorrow.

New York City Opera’s “Monodramas” continues through April 8.; 212-721-6500.

One Response to “Three inspired sopranos undone by madness and pretentious staging in City Opera’s “Monodramas””

  1. Posted Mar 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm by Kit Baker

    “served to perpetuate the view of a woman’s voice as an instrument of hysteria and of opera as vehicle for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching her unravel on stage”

    I must say I did not get that at all. I think you were much, much closer to the mark in your evocation of a Rorschach Test. Yet I would argue that the test was not one that a single score presented to the director, but a test that the director presented to the audience throughout the entire evening. And each of us saw something different (you the women unraveling, me a phantasmagorical journey through inner space where time stood still).

    We were presented with a succession of extraordinarily rich and powerful visual worlds, which invited our imaginations to roam wherever we liked within them. The willingness was all. Once in the groove, I found I heard the music better – the staging was like a visual counterpoint.

    For me, this production connected with a great New York artistic tradition in a way that was exhilarating to behold. This was particularly true of the staging of the Morton Feldman opera – complete with its infinite variations of the “gleam” referred to in Samuel Beckett’s libretto (and much else besides). Feldman was famously an admirer and close friend of John Cage, who was a lifetime collaborator with Merce Cunningham – another New York artist who created performances in which a willing imagination could immerse itself, liberated from the need to make “sense” of an artistic experience.