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Anu Komsi [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera]
04 Apr 2011

Monodramas, NYCO

New York City Opera’s evening of “Monodramas” (under that general title) may not appeal to the opera-goer who prefers such typical fare as the company’s other offering this week, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, but I found it a devilish and delightful exploration of the depths of inner consciousness.


John Zorn: La Machine de l’être — Anu Komsi, soprano. Arnold Schoenberg: Erwartung — Kara Shay Thomson, soprano. Morton Feldman: Neither — Cyndia Sieden, soprano. New York City Opera orchestra conducted by George Manahn. Performance of March 31.

Above: Anu Komsi

All photos by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera


John Zorn’s La Machine de l’être (The Machine of Being) began with an empty stage gradually filling with silent individuals dressed in all-covering costumes resembling burqas. A man and a woman dressed modern formal wear with stark white shirts and ties moved among the growing throng. One of the burqa-d women darted away when approached, as if in fear, then disappeared into the crowd, giving the proceedings something of the feel of a video game. The actors in suits removed the burqas from two of the crowd to reveal, first, a man dressed in a painfully brilliant red suit, and second, the soprano dressed in a starkly white gown. It was unsettling to find a man under a burqa, and he remained an uncomfortable presence on stage. A large cartoon “speech balloon” rose out of the floor and into position just over the head of the darting woman, adding to the video game impression. Film clips of drawings adapted from those made by Antonin Artaud during his incarceration in an asylum played across the balloon. These disturbing drawings complemented the disjointed music as both became increasingly twisted and tortured. Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, in her City Opera debut, did a fine job tossing her voice in the air evoking a descent into madness in this free-form piece that lacked both text and plot.

Monodramas0030.pngKara Shay Thomson, soprano

During a riveting entr’acte, Jennifer Steinkamp’s stunning video display of a stylized forest moving through the seasons played across the cartoon balloon. The video began with a wild profusion of pink cherry blossoms mixed with yellow flowers and moved on to greens of summer, then orange leaves falling and blowing and leaving a gray tangle of bare branches. I was almost disappointed when the second Monodrama began.

But the gorgeous orchestrations of Schoenberg’s Erwartung soon enveloped the audience, pulling us into the depths of the lonely protagonist’s consciousness. A stunning blizzard of brilliant red leaves fell on the stage for over half of the 30-minute piece. The glittering, tumbling red was mesmerizing against the midnight blue backdrop. A dead man lay in the middle of the stage with a knife protruding from his chest while the tortured ravings of the soprano, sung movingly by Kara Shay Thomson, were all that was needed to explain the drama—but several dancers provided an unneeded distraction throughout this beautiful and compelling operatic piece.

Monodramas0053.pngCyndia Sieden and ensemble

The final, longest, and most abstract Monodrama of the evening was Neither, set by composer Morton Feldman to a text by Samuel Beckett. The mystical and complex orchestral part was richly complemented by the continually evolving splashes of intense colors and shapes created by the laser and holographic effects (after work by the innovative laser artist Hiro Yamagata). Mirrored one-foot cubes moved and revolved, sending flashes of color and penetrating lights across the house. The singer and the several dancers reacted to and interacted with the cubes, as the singer seemed to try to find some connection with the other people. Cyndia Sieden’s voice sailed above the orchestra, intoning the text in a near monotone that never left the highest extremes of the soprano range.

The City Opera is certainly to be commended for stepping beyond the traditional operatic comfort zone to present these three fascinating and compelling performance pieces. It bodes well for the future of opera as a living art that this company has brought such work to its audience.

Jean Andrews

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