The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Monday, October 09, 2006

Two Reviews (and Some Reflections)

1. Oakland, October 6th, Oakland Opera Theatre, Les Enfants Terribles by Philip Glass.

I went to the premiere of this ambitious production of Philip Glass' danced opera last Friday night. This is the third opera of the trilogy of operas based on Jean Cocteau's films, Orphee, La Belle et la Bete, and Les Enfants Terribles. While all of these operas concern Cocteau's ideas of the power of art and the imagination, Les Enfants Terribles portrays the tragedy that can occur when reality and fantasy are blurred. It is a disturbing story, but it is one of my favorite works by Glass.

The original production was staged by the choreographer Susan Marshall, and took the innovative step of having each character in the opera portrayed by one singer and two dancers. The dancers and singers could then give all of the emotional aspects of how the characters felt in each scene. The singers then had to interact with the dancers, and the movement was flawless and integrated. Truly, it was one of the most fascinating performances I have ever seen.

Having seen the original production back in 1997, I was anxious to see how this small theatre group in Oakland would re-present this spectacle. I have to say that they indeed pulled it off. If anything, they have proven that this work is modest enough in terms of forces that it could be revived anywhere from San Francisco to Omaha. The score is for three pianos, and the operatic and choreographic forces needed are not large by any means. Hopefully, it will one day be a normal part of the repertoire of any ambitious theatre group ready to take on a challenging and beautiful work.

In this California production, the setting of Cocteau's novel is changed to French Indo-China in the 1950's. The narration and action available now in the recording were thus significantly altered in many respects. The mother, who dies but never appears in the original production, is actually portrayed here and brutally murdered. The snow ball fight at the beginning of the work is changed into a scene of a sling-shot fight with mud, and many other "cultural" changes also are made. These turned out to be minor in the greater scheme of the action of the opera.

The action between the singers and the dancers was less integrated, yet nevertheless the singers did their fair share of movement. The Nguyen Dance Company did a very good job in passionately playing out the ethos of Cocteau's elegant and brutal story. The soprano, Joohee Choi, was enchanting in her role as Lise, and the other singers gave a performance worthy of the original tour of 1997. Being a premiere, there were of course a number of problems with subtitles, sound systems, and moving about on stage. For the modest venue of the small theatre next to Jack London Square, it was a very magical and intimate performance.

Les Enfants Terribles plays from now until the 22nd of this month at the Oakland Opera Theatre in Oakland, Ca.

2. A Benefit Concert of Indian Carnatic Vocal Music, October 8th, St. John's Church, Berkeley Ca.

This turned out to be for a very good cause: a school for the mentally disabled in India. See this link for more information.

The star of this show was Sangeetha Swaminathan, a rising star vocalist in the classical music scene of southern India. She gave a flawless performance of various songs and ragas from the Carnatic tradition of the Indian subcontinent. She was accompanied by Anuradha Sridhar, violin, and Shriram Bramhanadam, mridangam (a form of drum).

I will tell you one thing, even if you do not like Indian classical music, you will certainly get more bang for your buck if you go to one of these concerts than if you went to a Western classical concert. The performers went over three hours without intermission and did not skip a beat the whole time. While Swaminathan was by far the star of the night, handling these classical pieces with deceptively flawless ease, the other two performers had their share of demonstrations of virtuosity.

There were some very interesting suprises that made me smile. One was that the drone, usually made by a tanpura, was replaced by a recorded drone. Microphones were also present, as was a sound system. People felt free to speak softly throughout the perfomance, and many tapped along with the music following the vocalist who kept the beat by vigourously slapping her thigh.

As a Christian, many things struck me about the attitude of prayer the that perfomers obviously had. If Christians sang so sweetly to Christ as that woman sang to the "Lord Krishna", perhaps we wouldn't be going through the troubles that we are experiencing now. The length of the performance itself also questioned our Western concept of "an hour and a half tops" in terms of capturing our attention. While there was some "boredom" after the first hour and a half, it was odd that I finally started listening in a whole new way after the second hour. The music did its work on me, and it was a very moving experience overall.

La Monte Young, a disciple of the famous North Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath, described in an interview Indian thought on music:

In Indian classical thought there is the idea that the universe was created with sound. In fact, it is said that when Vishnu decided to create the cosmos, he first cut himself in half and made out of one half of himself Brahma. Brahma created the world as we know it through sound. There is a famous Sanskrit line "Nada Brahma"- "Sound is God".

Could it perhaps be hoped that this is not too far from the Prologue of St. John:

In principio erat Verbum.... ?


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