Counsel, call your next witness.
Mr. and Mrs. Scatter went to the opera over the weekend, where Bernstein’s 1952 Trouble in Tahiti followed Monteverdi’s Il Ballo delle Ingrate (The Dance of the Ungrateful Women) from 1608 and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The Battle of Tancredi & Clorinda) from 1624, and it got Mr. S to thinking about observers. It was pretty hard not to. There they were, he observed, skulking about the stage: gray, grotesque, kind of creepy, very sad. Tormented souls stuck somewhere between the passions of the flesh and the soul-sucking chill of the Underworld.
Witnesses — those “I alone am escaped to tell you” chroniclers of catastrophe and adventure — are crucial figures in the world of the imagination. From the cautioning choruses of Greek tragedies to Melville’s wide-eyed sailor Ishmael, we’re used to the idea of the witness as a cornerstone of civilized life.
What really happened? Who saw it? How can we determine the truth? What does it mean?
From the lofty perch of the present we stand as witnesses to time, looking back on history, rewriting it as we gain new reports from the trenches and rethink what we’ve already seen. We judge, revise, rejudge: In the courtroom of culture, the jury never rests.
But what if the past looks forward and witnesses us? What does it see? What can it mean?
That’s what happens in Portland Opera‘s new production of these three short works, which span roughly three and a half centuries in their composition and many more — back to the cavortings of the classical Greek gods — in their subject matter. Stage director Nicholas Muni, whose last visit here resulted in a hair-raisingly good version of Benjamin Britten‘s The Turn of the Screw, has linked these seemingly alien pieces audaciously in time and space, rendering them chapters in a neverending story of misbegotten love. And those gray grotesque observers are the key.
David Stabler and Mr. Mead have filed insightful reviews (with very different conclusions), and Mr. Scatter does not wish to add a formal review to territory they’ve covered well. But he does want to think a little about those witnesses.
The program opener, Il Ballo delle Ingrate, tells the tale of Cupid, who is heartbroken because his love-arrows aren’t working anymore: humans, wrapped up in their own selfish pursuits, are mocking the very idea of love (it seems it’s the women’s fault). Cupid’s mom, Venus, takes him to the Underworld and sweet-talks Pluto into releasing a few of the dead to show the living humans what happens when they let their hearts grow hard. That leads, in Il Combatimento, to the story of Tancredi and Clorinda, lovers from opposite sides of the tracks (he’s Christian, she’s Muslim) who battle fiercely in a war. Only after he’s wounded her mortally does he realize it’s his own true love he’s slain. Darn. Gods and the ashen dead alike gather around the fringes of the story, willing it forward, dreading its outcome, observing the follies they’ve already lived through as the follies repeat themselves in slightly altered form. The witnesses gather again, after admission, in Trouble in Tahiti, a mid-twentieth century story of a perfect suburban couple putting itself through the same, age-old tortures of love stunted by anger and isolation. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
One of the most significant things that has occurred under Christopher Mattaliano’s artistic direction of Portland Opera has been its blossoming as a place where acting and stagecraft count — not as substitutions for singing and orchestral excellence, but as partners. Mattalianio has nudged the company toward a sense of theater that was not always there in the past, and this production is further proof of his belief that theater and music go hand in hand; that the role of opera is melodrama, the fusion of music and drama. You can come for the music and be satisfied. You can come with little background in the music and be pulled into it by the accessibility of the theater.
That doesn’t mean a little background doesn’t help. Monteverdi was the original master of baroque opera, when the musically sophisticated, theatrically rudimentary masque was giving way to true musical theater. Mr. Scatter doesn’t know whether stage director Muni meant it this way, but what he saw in this production was a sort of historical melting of theatrical style. Il Ballo delle Ingrate begins in a stiff, stylized movement vocabulary, a contemporary riff on the slow baroque flourish, very studied and still: If it has a rough modern equivalent, it might be butoh, with its deliberate weighted trudge through time and space. Muni takes a big gamble here: If the audience looks only through contemporary eyes (and eyes accustomed mainly to film-style realism) the pace can seem static and awkward. Sometimes the audience has a responsibility, too.
The pace picks up with the battle-passion of Il Combattimento, and by the time of Trouble in Tahiti we find ourselves in a quick contemporary nostalgia zone, easy and familiar and bright. Bernstein throws in a little pop-jazz, a sort of Andrews Sisters swing; and a savage little satiric jab at South Pacific (this is where the title Trouble in Tahiti comes from); and Muni adds an acting style that echoes the midcentury modern ironies of Mad Men. His gray witnesses from the past are still with us, linking this modern story to the imagined realities of Monteverdi’s and Cupid’s times, and perhaps because the dead witnesses are made flesh, Muni adds some contemporary flesh of his own: the unhappy couple’s son, and the straying husband’s secretary/mistress, characters usually alluded to but not seen, are there on the stage.
Mr. Scatter asked what it might mean that the past peers forward into the present. In this production, at least, he thinks it means that some things that are long ago are also very much with us in the present. We live with ghosts because we share their values, their failures, their skins. Sometimes we look at the past to discover how different we are from it. Sometimes we look at the past and see ourselves. There is a kinship between Bernstein’s world and Monteverdi’s, a kinship that the gray grotesques bring strikingly home. You feel it in the emotions, and you also hear it in the music: both composers give their audiences tastes of the easy aural pleasures of their respective eras, and when the going gets tough, both cut the frills and shoot straight for the heart. It’s another example of the ties across time between the pre-classical and post-romantic musical worlds. Mr. Scatter is far from the only one who has escaped alive to tell you.
A couple of things to mention, even though this is not a formal review: Sue Bonde’s costumes (Mr. Scatter assumes, in the absence of another credit, that she is also responsible for the effective makeup) lends a great deal of credibility to Muni’s vision. The singers are present and past members of the opera company’s Studio Artist Program, and they acquit themselves well. And conductor Robert Ainsley, leading the Third Angle New Music Ensemble, nimbly leaps the stylistic breach between baroque and modern, matching the singers nicely with the small ensemble. The decibel level is ideal for the Monteverdi. It seems right for the singers with the Bernstein, too, although Tahiti was originally orchestrated for 26 musicians and later cut to 14, and here is performed by just eight.
Mr. Scatter does not know what difference those extra musicians might make. He does know that the witnesses he witnessed pulled this risky project together with aplomb.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
— Jose Rubio as Sam and Daryl Freedman as Dinah in “Trouble in Tahiti.” Photo: Portland Opera/Cory Weaver
— Claudio Monteverdi at about age 30, circa 1597, by an anonymous artist, (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Wikimedia Commons
— Leonard Bernstein, conductor and musical director of New York City Symphony, 1945. Dig that groovy jacket. Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer. Wikimedia Commons