Portland Opera review: two faces of David Lang

Production elements sometimes enhance, sometimes impair "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” and “The Little Match Girl Passion”

by BRUCE BROWNE and DARYL BROWNE

Sunday afternoon marked a bravura effort by Portland Opera Association on the front lines of 21st century opera. Never an easy sell, “new” opera these days is propelled by a combination of theatrics, good music, and – as in modern cinema – special effects. POA chose well here, offering two short dramas by composer David Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (a success) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion (a knockout). The shows conclude their run at Portland’s Newmark Theatre on August 3 and 5.

Match Girl is a moving setting of the 1846 Hans Christian Andersen tale, set on a chilly New Year’s Eve. The eponymous character, opening the opera center stage in foreboding sepia tones, was played with poise and aplomb by Max Young. The tiny match girl is the embodiment of goodness and purity pitied by onlookers too busy applauding their own pious countenance to actually help her to survive.

Portland Opera’s “The Little Match Girl Passion.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

While there is no earthly hope for the tiny waif, Anderson offers her hopeful dreams, brought on by the lighting of one match and then another and then all – a Christmas tree, a roasted goose, a fire to warm her bare feet and her beloved sainted grandmother.

Lang, his own librettist, inserts three angelic characters into the ensemble – guardians for her journey. He also inserts a moral overtone which, he has said, is the Passion story according to St. Matthew, hold the religion. Pain, suffering, faith, indifference.

Musical references to Bach’s sacred music are present in Match Girl: the “Eli, Eli” is declaimed as it is in the St. Matthew, as well as a chorale — like melody from the same. Dramatically, the crowd acts like a Bach (or Greek) crowd chorus, commenting on the action, remaining on the periphery, aghast, yet mostly uninvolved. Well, there was one wonderful turn where one of the girl’s dreams was choreographed did involve almost the entire ensemble. The brief flirtations with choreography were well placed, enlivening the rather somber tale just a bit.

Portland had a chance to hear the Match Girl last year, presented by Patrick McDonough and The Ensemble, quite different in that only four singers were used, and there was no movement. That show was top notch, but I feel that this production’s movement, costumes, and stage effects, including many minutes of falling snowflakes, only added to Lang’s opera.

Two production elements especially elevated this opera, one of Lang’s design, and the other, the brilliance of Portland Opera’s stage director, Imago Theatre’s Jerry Mouawad, facilitated by company lighting experts.

David Lang’s score designates that the instrumental parts — all percussion — are to be performed on stage, in this case by singer characters. Four singers were positioned, two on each side, and performed traditional pitched instruments like xylophone and chime and non-traditional instruments, like brake drum. Percussion as characters, members of the ensemble. And ensemble is the key word for this opera, which had some solo singing but no “lead” roles other than the little girl, who did not sing. The minimalist nature of the vocal lines, often in tight, repeated intervals, requires extra-special care in tuning. An excessive vibrato from Ms. Williamson caused difficulties in tuning perfection.

The second elevating element was the use of shadow play – shadowed figures projected onto the backdrop. With few exceptions, the shadows were live actors, not puppets. This effect added dimensional depth, movement and action which allowed the foreground to remain focused on the little girl. Nicely done.

Disappearing Act

Using similar musical language, but not as inspiring, is Lang’s opera from a 1915 story by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?), The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. The central event is the disappearance of a plantation owner as he crosses his own field, the inquiry into which introduces several different viewers, all of whom have a different spin. Bierce, one of our country’s finest early writers, wrote this brief tale in journalistic style. Some of Bierce works are fictions of science and the supernatural; four works, including this one, have been called the “disappearance tales.”

For the sake of appreciation of art and technique and effect, Crossing is a compelling work. If a work is non- representational, that is, altogether without characters or “story,” then let it thrive within that sphere. The Bierce is a literary piece which simply relates an occurrence. Its primary interest is that it has no conclusion and yet is compelling. In the original source itself are the lines:

[boy character speaking] …what has become of Mr. Williamson?”

It is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Plenty minimalist for me, and a great fit with Lang’s music.

However, librettist Mac Wellman, while he extracted Bierce’s words and followed the general contours of Bierce’s story line, chose to add elements to the story that suggest more than the original treatment. By repeated insertion, the controversial and unrepentant racist, John C. Calhoun became a character in absentia. Mention is made of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (negating the Missouri Compromise), which was certainly on Bierce’s radar in his post-Civil War lifetime, but is not part of his “Crossing” story. Perhaps intending to put more meat on the bones of the story, Wellman added more confusion.

The audience shouldn’t be confused if a story is attempted. Here is where the production decisions could have helped. The “disappeared” Mr. Williamson “appears” as a character. Could he not have been presented differently – less vital perhaps, costumed or set apart on stage? Great effort is spent trying to figure out what is going on in the story line of this opera, effort that could have been spent appreciating and absorbing the art.

Portland Opera’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” Photo: Cory Weaver.

A modest suggestion: since supertext is offered above the proscenium for all sung words, why not extend that to the spoken dialogue in Crossing a Field? When the actors turn upstage, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re speaking or singing, we lose consonants and thus dramatic continuity. As well, there’s a cerebral switch when relying on the supertext and suddenly it’s switched off; the listener must transfer to “ears only” dialogue to make sense of it all. Also, spoken dialogue in Field was delivered faster and usually did not repeat, where in Lang’s musical dialogue, there were a great many repetitions, due to the minimalist effects, so it was much easier to follow. And “follow” proved to be the challenge of the story line of this work.

Solution: GO, settle in early and read the program notes thoroughly before the opera.

Lang’s music here is decidedly more pointillistic and post minimal than in Match Girl. Crossing a Field, with 12 characters and a string quartet, uses crisp rhythmic discharges of tightly knit dissonances, mixed meter and repetition, repetition, repetition in vocal and instrumental lines. If your operatic taste preferences do not include repetition of motives or jabbing rhythms, or if you prefer lyric arias with traditional word accent, prepare your palette for a jolt.

On the other hand, it’s a gently applied dose of music from our era, laid on with a strong cast of characters, good singing, and expert conducting by Hal France. The strings were spot on throughout.

Vocal standouts included mezzo soprano Hannah Penn, playing the wife of the “disappeared” gentleman, and tenor Martin Bakari, who has a compelling silvery tone, navigates easily through the entire tenor range, and has a voice that carries easily through the hall. Nicole Mitchell, playing an Old Woman/Slave, showed a rich tonal palette, and a fine characterization of the old woman. Lisa Williamson performed well in Crossing, where she was in fine control in her middle range.

The assembly line movement here was robotic, as characters often looked like wound-up Olympia dolls. Effective for a while, it became quotidian. But the “Night Gallery” effect of the lighting and other staging was moody and well married to the libretto of Bierce’s story of the “mysteries of Selma, Alabama.”

Musically, there is plenty to appreciate in this double bill — a must see and hear in the twentieth century opera oeuvre. It is a privilege to reside near an opera company willing to bring these works to our stage.

A striking irony on the theme of conclusion without closure is the parallel between the disappearance of Bierce’s character, and that of the writer himself. He crossed the border into Mexico in 1913, and vanished into thin air. There still exist at least seven stories of his death, all of which have a different spin. Hmm. Perhaps there is a spirit land where Bierce and Mr. Williamson exist simultaneously still! Alas, it is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question.

Portland Opera performs David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field and The Little Match Girl Passion August 3 and 5 at Portland5’s Newmark Theatre. Tickets online.

Bruce Browne is a conductor and educator. He is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a retired music teacher, singer and flutist.

Read Brett Campbell’s profile of David Lang.

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