Director Michael Counts’ Monodramas, a new, defiantly abstract, aggressively alienating, and conceptually overblown collection of three short vocal works at City Opera, traces the evolution of musical communication as Robert LePage’s recent Nightingale and Other Short Fables elucidated the history of theater: it begins in a quasi-primitive time without language, moves through the discovery of poetry (and nightmarish imagery) and lands in the demoralizing mechanical-monotone of the postmodern present, using the ugliness of contemporary music to force a mirror in front of our faces.
The show begins with the world stage premiere of John Zorn‘s “La Machine De L’Etre”…no, wait, the show begins with two tuxedoed actors standing in a spotlight, expressionless, like posturing mannequins. The curtain goes up to reveal a chorus—a non-singing chorus—covered head-to-toe in veils and robes like women in Iran. The Tuxedoed Two disrobe members of this herd at (seeming) random, exposing individuals amid the sea of monotonous conformity: among others, they reveal a man in a blazing red suit (who will later be pulled into the rafters and disappear) and the soloist for the Zorn piece, the redoubtable Anu Komsi.
Zorn’s tripartite, ten-minute work is wordless: it’s like a Concerto for Voice, separating (though not quite “freeing”) conventional opera from language. Meaning here can only be derived, if it can be derived at all, from pure sound. To underscore this idea, Counts raises a cartoon speech bubble above the stage, onto which he projects animations of abstract imagery, based on drawings by Antonin Artaud (who provides Zorn’s work with its title). Once again, communication has severed its ties with language; when the work ends, and the music stops, the speech bubble appeared to catch fire. It was literally blinding.
Next, Schoenberg‘s “Erwartung,” with text by Marie Pappenheim, which reads on paper like a Gothic horror story: a woman wanders the woods, searching for a missing lover, terrified of every shadow and rustling until she stumbles (literally) upon the murdered corpse of her beau. (A man with a knife protruding from his chest lies center stage for most of the thirty minutes, as a silent cast of nurse-maidens flit about.) In practice, it plays like a mystifying nightmare, the strange and unnerving atonality of the score befitting the eerie narration-song (and the severity of the German language of the libretto). Like the melodies she sings, the woman (the towering Kara Shay Thomson) seems irrational and hysterical, a jilted mad woman who might be imagining this whole scenario, or who might even be responsible for the murder she discovers. Counts washes the stage in fluttering flecks of red, looking less like rose pedals than blood snow.
After intermission, the U.S. stage premiere of Morton Feldman’s “Neither,” from a libretto by Samuel Beckett, ten lines stretched out to almost an hour. “From impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither,” goes the second line, elucidating the overarching theme of the evening (emphasis on the “impenetrable”?). Counts’ staging includes more than a dozen—was it several dozen?—spinning mirror cubes on long strings, and quasi-reflective metallic walls, on which the brilliant/lunatic lighting designer Robert Wierzel projects different frequencies of the color wheel produced by a crashed NES cartridge. It’s like a Discotheque Hell, Marienbad via Gaspar Noe. The formidable Cyndia Sieden scraped out the absurdly high melody, one note that eventually extends into a repeating triad, over orchestration that usually evokes the dissonance of electronic feedback. (Ligeti‘s moody music chosen for Kubrick films provides the clearest comparison.) The chorus moved their hands robotically—not quite danced—to the tick-tock rhythms.
Monodramas evinced art wholly disconnected from pleasure, but I must admit that as “Neither” wound down, I think I finally understood modern music, whose dissonant, arhythmic and amelodic qualities I’ve resisted for so long: the singer’s creepy, anguished, quasi-mechanical cries were the cries of a creepy, anguished, mechanical time. They were the sounds of the late 20th century, where the forms of the old Italian Masters no longer applied. My seat neighbor, an elderly man, met the end of every piece with an irritated “you’re kidding?” He may not have gotten what he wanted to see, but he probably got what he deserved.
Monodramas plays until April 8. See here for more info.
Listen to an excerpt from “Erwartung”: