Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Music, dance and design fuse in surrealistic strength for the U.S premiere of The Black Cat at Long Beach Opera

In American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 dark tale, The Black Cat, the insidious and debilitating affects of alcoholism are seen through the horrors of violence and murder. Zooming in on domestic homicide, guilt becomes its by-product and, harbouring the secret of the act, its pain - more than enough ingredients for chilling operatic fodder. Potently, with the shocking statistics that continue to be ascribed to the crime, the work resonates hugely in our not so rosy domestic world where love is automatically presumed to be safe.

Keith Ian Polakoff, Jean-Guillaume Weis and Sylvia Camarda 
Poe’s short story has seen various adaptations but its operatic form arrived with a 2012 world premiere that combined English songwriter David Sylvian's songs and arias from J.S. Bach's cantatas in a collaboration with Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and conductor Martin Haselböck at Théâtre National du Luxembourg in Belgium.

It took California’s intrepid Long Beach Opera to give The Black Cat its U.S. premiere, opening on 19th January and utilising director Frank Hoffmann’s original production with Virgil Widrich’s design concept. Realised in a palpably collaborative fashion, the experience stealthily unfolds in a surrealistic, trance-like state. Two dancers, an actor and a tenor entwined their talents marvellously to mine its pathos, revulsion and edgy, meditative gloomy beauty. 

It was intended to be performed by all of the original performers with English tenor Nicholas Mulroy as both singer and actor in the role of the nameless man who finds himself on death row after being convicted of his wife’s murder. But Mulroy’s inability to enter the U.S. due to the government’s current administrative shutdown threw a spanner in the works. With just 5 days notice to prepare, American tenor Aaron Sheehan stepped in, sang alongside the small chamber orchestra of 7 musicians and did a sterling job in giving toasty-warm voice, purposefully driven text and agile technique as assistant director Jacques Schiltz acted the part with complete understanding.

Jean-Guillaume Weis and Aaron Sheehan
Dancers Sylvia Camarda and Jean-Guillaume Weis provided compelling focus to flashbacks of the condemned man’s circumstances as his reason is poisoned and delirium takes effect. From a quaint but ominous commedia dell’arte-like sketch as the wife prepares a romantic dinner for her husband, the scene quickly deteriorates into an alcoholic’s blurred imaginations. Weis’ drunken movements were brilliantly executed, as were Camarda’s lithe and generously expressed performance. Suspicion, anger and blame are invited in with the presence and actions of the owner’s pet black cat Pluto. At times, both man and woman appear to morph as cat which adds to the psychedelic sense that Sylvian’s smokey music evokes.

It’s almost crazy, but unsettling and jolting, how the mix of J.S. Bach’s live music and Sylvian's recorded songs are spliced, delineated and layered, then worm their way into a unimaginable whole in a story both utterly mad and tragically plausible. Though alternating from one to the other, the purity of classical and modern genres is occasionally eschewed, resulting in a soundscape that unites them as well as emphasise extremes. Similarly, storytelling via Bach’s translated German arias and Sylvian’s songs is obliquely suggestive, but gestured powerfully through dance. 

Jean-Guillaume Weis and Sylvia Camarda
Virgil Widrich’s stage design evokes a vividly coloured surrealistic cinematic aesthetic. The effect created feels as superbly visionary as Salvador Dali and Bunuel’s 1929 silent short film, Un Chien Andalou, in which the violent disputes between a man and a woman are likewise witnessed. Even the musicians become part of the work as they enter the stage to take their places, dressed in coats and hats in a Magritte-like parade and return to the stage towards the end as detectives when the man is being interviewed. 

Three-metre high digital screens - three of them - form the backdrop on which Widrich’s visuals and projections indicate settings that move from prison cell to house, garden and back. Sin in God's presence and time for repentance seem omnipresent with the use of a crucifix and a pendulum wall clock. The tick-tock of the clock floats on the music as the pendulum swings, as does the sound of water droplets that conjure the damp harshness of the cell. Every effort to fuse music, design and dance appears to have been made that contributed hugely to the show’s seductive success. 

Indications are that the work will maintain the separate casting of actor and singer. I’d prefer not. To hear Bach’s arias sung with depth of emotion from the actor himself who plays the condemned man as he blends with the danced flashbacks would integrate the piece even further.

The Black Cat
Long Beach Opera
The Beverly O’Neill Theatre
Until 20th January, 2019

Production Photos: Keith Ian Polakoff

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