Monday, October 1, 2012

Orientale: Orientalism goes meta with Monteverdi

Gotham Chamber Opera's advertisement of "an evening of music at the intersection of East and West" had me concerned as well as intrigued. Who would be constructing whom, through what? Would Edward Said be horrified? In the event, the evening at Le Poisson Rouge was both entertaining and provocative. By rejecting an ordering according to chronology or the origin of the composers, the program highlighted the artificiality of the atemporal "Orient." Moreover, the costuming (Zane Pihlstrom) and choreography (Austin McCormick) placed exaggerated emphasis on the abandoned sensuality and transgressive sexuality which have, historically, flourished as characteristics of the imagined Orient. The dancers of Company XIV wore fantastical costumes mixing men's and women's, Near Eastern and European articles of clothing, and adding elements of contemporary burlesque for good measure. There were moments where I wondered uneasily if the audience was aware of where all these ideas were coming from and why they appeared in the form they did, but I was fairly certain the artists were.* Opening with Lully's "Marche pour le cérémonie des Turcs" followed by the Armenian piece "Asparani Bar" gave a good aural introduction to the musical languages of the evening. The Maya trio contributed several Armenian pieces throughout the evening, playing with considerable beauty and spirit. Their expressive range was impressive, and their rich, dynamic playing carried an implicit challenge to a Western audience's aural habit of associating certain minor harmonies and lilting rhythms with a range of dramatic and emotional values limited by Orientalist constructs.

"Clorinda dies in Tancred's arms,"
Bernardo Castello
Fitting centerpiece of the evening was Monteverdi's Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, that gorgeous Venetian creation--complex, compact, and indubitably sexy--based on Tasso's magnificent epic, Gerusalemme Liberata (I really like this translation.) Race, sex, gender, and religion are all hot topics in this excerpt, where the Norman warrior Tancred and the Ethiopian (but blonde... it's a long story) warrior Clorinda fight to the death, in the dark, Monteverdi and Tasso protesting a little too much that these fierce and breathless embraces are not at all like those of lovers. (And the deadly foes are in love with each other; the accidental incognito of darkness is their undoing.) All of this is chronicled in full-blooded verse thrillingly set;Gotham's early instrument ensemble contributed exciting work. Michael Kelly, as the narrator, sang with a bright and flexible baritone, making his figure's powerless compassion truly poignant. His sensitivity to text was also admirable, and crucial, as Monteverdi's vivid writing encompasses lyrical emotional expression and urgent onomatopoeic syllables. The roles of the warrior-lovers were sung by Maeve Höglund and Zachary Altman, and danced with furious intensity--and passion bordering on the obscene--by Sean Gannon and Cailan Orn. If it didn't seem like unutterable presumption, I could wish Monteverdi had set more stanzas. Rounding out the evening were selections familiar and unfamiliar.

From Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals, Kelly and Altman gave "Se vittore sì belle," celebrating the piece's (homo)eroticism. (Altman's rendering of the Schumann lied "Aus den östlichen Rosen" was disappointing, its sense lost in strange vowels.) An account of Delibes' very familiar "Sous le dôme épais" was pleasingly langorous and tender, mezzo Naomi O'Connell accompanying Höglund. Höglund replaced the indisposed Jennifer Rivera in Bizet's slightly less famous "Adieux de l'hôtesse arabe" as she had done in the Monteverdi, with a warm, shimmery tone. Laura Careless danced the piece with an eroticism so flagrant as to seem a defiance to the beholder. Szymanowski's "Allah, Akbar, Alla" from Piesni muezina szalonego was an intriguing discovery, piano and soprano intertwining in a manner both ecstatic and dreamy. Embracing the nebulous quality of dreams was John Hadfield's world premiere, oniric [sic; oneiric.] The percussion was played by the composer; Marisol Cabrera danced flamenco. Spain: the other Orient! The inclusion of this was, I thought, an interesting way of highlighting how Europe has created its "others." The mood of the evening, however, remained resolutely ludic, concluding with Rameau's exuberant "Regnez, plaisirs et jeux!"

The program will be performed again on October 3.

*Note: Unless I misheard his introductory spiel, though, Neal Goren collectively identified the pieces as a "celebration of the music of the East by Western composers." Um... celebration is hardly the word, surely. Appropriating? Refashioning? Making up out of whole cloth? And Karol Szymanowski, incidentally, did not identify as a Western composer (his writings on nationalism, internationalism, and identity in music are fascinating, and some of them may be found in translation here.)


  1. Thanks for the Tasso recommendation! The hunt for it has led to a bookstore in the hinterlands I didn't know existed.

    1. I'm delighted to hear it! Discovering bookstores is always fun.


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