"From impenetrable self to impenetrable unself": Cynthia Sieden in Neither (Photo: Richard Perry, The New York Times)
Monodramas, which offers three short operas by John Zorn, Arnold Schoenberg and Morton Feldman at the New York City Opera through the end of this week, is a fine production musically but something more ambivalent on stage. The operas (at least Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Feldman’s Neither) present characters and worlds at the very extremity of psychological isolation: monodramas indeed, they are intensely wrought solo pieces which, in their brevity (20 minutes for Erwartung and about an hour for Neither), contain the emotional and spiritual acuity of Parsifal and others of the lengthiest of Wagner’s scores. Director/designer Michael Counts, making his New York City Opera debut, finds visual correlates for these operas that fail more often than they succeed — a mixed bag, really, of both influence and perspective. The main culprit here is a chorus of silent supernumeraries which populates the stage of all three operas, dissipating the intensity that would attach to the solo performer.
This problem is particularly acute in the production of Erwartung. Counts surrounds the white-gowned soprano Kara Shay Thomson with a group of similarly white-gowned women as Thomson’s character searches (in reality or in her mind) a wooded thicket seeking her unfaithful lover. Both Schoenberg’s score, one of the first of his fully atonal period, and Marie Pappenheim’s libretto consist of a series of constantly shifting musical and psychological planes, turning on a dime from joy to terror, from anger to mourning. This requires and repays a close attention on the part of the spectator, and this attention is dissipated here amongst the other figures on the stage. The set makes a due nod to the oversaturated colors of the painters of the Expressionist period in which the opera originated — blood red for falling leaves, a deep blue for the upstage night which turns to jet black by the curtain — but also an unnecessary nod to Rene Magritte with its bowler hats and an eerily-lit house. When one of the silent women waves her hand in front of Thomson’s face, she mimics the gestural and stage design for the opera itself — an attempt to crack and break a tension essential to the reception of Schoenberg’s experimentation.
The ensemble is back after intermission for Neither, Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett’s mid-1970s meditation on the rift between identity and non-identity, between the phenomenal and the noumenal. Conductor George Manahan and soprano Cynthia Sieden provided the best reading of this score I’ve heard to date — Feldman’s soundscapes can often turn to mush in performances that lack the steely clarity of the New York City Opera orchestra, and Sieden herself is something of a wonder, offering near-impossible enunciations of both consonants and vowels in the score’s forbiddingly high range. Counts’ stage design, all reflective surfaces and slowly spinning cubes suspended halfway down the stage, one side disappearing as another side comes into view, a neat visual counterpart to Feldman’s and Beckett’s examination of sensory experience on the cusp of consciousness, serves the opera well. But that ensemble doesn’t; despite Sieden’s powerful performance, the production would have been far more powerful had she been given the stage to herself. The ensemble is dressed in the minimalist tuxedoes of high-income Soho chic; in one dance segment, the click-click of the women’s high-heeled pumps stomped all over Feldman’s masterful and delicate orchestration, puncturing its gossamer texture.
Unfortunately this ensemble is what ties the evening together, and once they’re introduced in the John Zorn curtain-raiser Counts is reluctant to get them off; the entr’acte between the Zorn and Schoenberg pieces, in which women dressed in Middle East burqas are uncovered to reveal the ensemble of Erwartung, is just silly downtown multicultural posturing. That said, however, Erwartung and Neither are well-represented musically in Monodramas; would that the production had the same intense, courageous resonance of its umbrella title.