A Sellars Duo and Trilogy
Last summer in New York I saw the Finnish-French Kaija Saariaho's "La Passione de Simone." Last week and this, in New York and Los Angeles, I saw the Rumanian-Hungarian-German Gyorgy Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments." They form a duo, both directed by Peter Sellars and sung by Dawn Upshaw (and lighted by James F. Ingalls). Each lasts some 70 minutes and was inspired by a despairing Jew: The French Simone Weil starved herself to death when she refused to eat more than a concentration-camp inmate during the Holocaust. Franz Kafka was, well, Kafka, and hence Kafka-esque.
But "La Passione" is also the third installment in a trilogy, inspired and directed by Sellars, with texts by the Lebanese-French Amin Maalouf. The first was the spectacular opera "L'Amour de Loin" in Salzburg. The second was the fascinating but less intense opera "Adriana Mater" in Paris. And now, this quasi-operatic monologue.
What this duo and trilogy do first of all is attest to Sellars's ability to win the loyalty of talented collaborators. The two seen by me this year also attest to Upshaw's unique blend of musical skill, sweet vocalism and an seemingly innocent normalcy, which helps project these intense passions with an intensity unexpected and hence reinforced by contrast. And intensity they need, since they are gloomy indeed, albeit illuminated here and they by shafts of hope.
"La Passione" was commissioned by Sellars's New Crowned Hope festival two years ago in Vienna, in which contemporary composers were asked to write works somehow connected to Mozart masterpieces. Like John Adams's "Flowering Tree" and its links to "The Magic Flute." "La Passione" is supposed to evoke Mozart's Requiem, which it does in its grand, life-or-death seriousness.
The "Kafka Fragments" production started life in early 2005 and has now been revived after Upshaw has been through life-threatening health crises, which Sellars perhaps indiscretely argues may have deepened her interpretation. The score, austerely set for solo soprano solo and onstage solo violinist, was not intended as a stage work. But Sellars, finally understanding that he couldn't persuade Kurtag to write one, decided to make his own Kurtag opera from this.
The result may not be deeply moving, but it is continuously engrossing, thought-provoking and touching -- like most Sellars productions. The staging involves an ordinary woman doing domestic tasks (ironing, folding, mopping, sweeping), wirh the fragments like random thought-balloons while she putters. This doesn't add an unnecessary layer to the music; it makes it more accessible without dumbing it down.
And Sellars, in post-performance conversation in New York and a pre-perfomance monologue in Los Angeles, offered hints of secret layers of meaning. Such as a moment in which Upshaw, having brushed her teeth, applies the toothbrush to the floor. This replicates a Holocaust memorial statue in Vienna in which a Jew is forced by the Nazis to scrub the street with a toothbrush, which actually happened after the Anschluss.
Some might still find the added dramatic overlay a distraction, and still others remained unconvinced by David C.Michaelek's stark, black-and-white projected photographs, over which one could read an English translation of the German texts. I liked them, and am in any case inclined to cut Michaelek a lot of slack after his amazing "Slow Dancing" installation.
Even with Gerard Mortier's withdrawal from the New York City Opera, where he planned to use Sellars extensively, and even with Peter Gelb's misguided decision not to use Sellars's production of Adams's "Doctor Atomic" at the Met, Sellars will still be everywhere in upcoming years. To judge from this duo of ever-inventive, deeply commited productions, that's a cause for celebration.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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