By Perry Tannenbaum
CHARLESTON, S.C. – With John Kennedy confidently in charge of its orchestra and opera programming, Spoleto Festival USA keeps pushing the boundaries of what is new. First performed in 2015, the 2018 reprise of Liza Lim’s Tree of Codes is doubly new for Americans, but the U.S. premiere of Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei, written in 1837, is a new arrival but not a new composition.
Spoleto specializes in such excavations – Vivaldi’s Farnace was given just last season. You Are Mine Own is different, a new type of synthesis by filmmaker/director Atom Egoyan. Taking Alexander Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and the work it inspired, Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet, Egoyan brought in two opera singers, baritone Alexander Dobson and soprano Natalia Pavlova, to perform the songs. Before that, flipping the order of composition, he thrust Dobson and Pavlova into a romantic story that had them wordlessly acting out a relationship, from the first flare of attraction onward.
Onstage at Gaillard Center, the singers moved in front of and in between the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and a string quartet. Folded into the scenario were a chair for Pavlova to sit in alluringly, a radiator for the nervous Dobson to fidget at, and a very long, soft rope for the baritone to use in binding the soprano to the radiator when wooing didn’t work.
The silent singers weren’t idle, with plenty of movement and emoting from Egoyan for the singers to memorize. Pavlova ranged from demure and unapproachable to coquettish and playful, while the more intense Dobson shuttled between timidity and boldness. Further texturizing the couple, Pavlova nursed a flute while Dobson fished out sheet music from a large, thin sample case, indications that he was a composer or a conductor.
Comedy and electronic pizzazz enlivened the spectacle. Kennedy’s entrance and the orchestra’s tune-up were incorporated into Egoyan’s scheme, and when Dobson ventured onto the conductor’s podium, music stands responded collectively to his prompts by lighting up.
Worries that Pavlova and Dobson had been recruited chiefly for their acting abilities were emphatically dispelled once the symphony began. The ardor of Dobson’s singing enriched his characterization in the opening “Ich bin friedlos” (“I am restless”), growing in tenderness at the climactic “Du bist die Abendwolke” (“You are the evening cloud”), the song that nestled into Berg’s quartet and gave Egoyan his title. Pavlova brought a fresh girlishness to her “Mutter, der junge Prinz” (“Mother, the young Prince”) and, after Dobson’s tenderest declarations, mellowed and matured sweetly in her “Sprich zu mir Geliebter” (“Speak to me, my love”).
In the tangy bondage episode, it was Dobson angrily demanding to be set free while we watched Pavlova breaking out of her captivity almost effortlessly. While the concluding “Friede, mein Herz” (“Peace, my heart”) didn’t require Dobson’s most dramatic singing, the symphonic episode that followed – powerfully rendered by Kennedy and the Festival Orchestra – demanded that Egoyan invent a dramatic conclusion without the benefit of dialogue between the lovebirds. Despair and bliss followed one another in quick succession as Egoyan engineered a wordless ending reminiscent of the death-to-life scenario of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Egoyan reportedly brooded over You Are Mine Own for 15 years. Clearly this unique piece of music-theatre captivated everyone else who helped bring it to life.
On the other hand, it was difficult to discern any communication between Lim and Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen – or any visceral connection between Lim and the texts by Bruno Schulz, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Michel Foucault that she cobbled into her libretto with snippets of Jonathan Safran Foer’s experimental, die-cut book Tree of Codes. It would also be difficult to prove that Ong understood this libretto any better than anyone else at Dock Street Theatre on opening night.
Lim has tantalizingly specified when the action takes place: “during an extra day grafted on to the continuity of life.” But where? We only get a nebulous answer from Lim in her program notes, so Ong takes charge, circling us back to Schulz’s 1934 collection of short stories, The Street of Crocodiles. From their original Polish village, Egoyan takes Son and Adela, the two main characters that Lim has plucked from the short stories, and transports them to a space inspired by sculptor-architect Rachel Whiteread’s Jewish Memorial in Vienna.
Executing this concept, Scott Zielinski comes up with a leaning structure that vaguely suggests Foer’s book (derived from STreet of CroCodiles) but morphs into other nebulous things – behind a geometric, transparent scrim. Video designer Austin Switser and lighting designer James F. Ingalls work wonders with that scrim and Zielinski’s monument, which becomes a second projection surface. The marvelous imagery remains abstract. Although Ong is directing us toward the historical resonance of Schulz’s death outside a Jewish ghetto, we never arrive there, impactfully.
As for action, Lim’s descriptions never happen for us outside of her notes. When scene 3, “Ventriloquism,” arrives, relationships joined by ventriloquism never emerge.
Marisol Montalvo adds alluring, seductive electricity to the Spoleto production as Adela. Ong encourages her to take her appeal all the way to dominatrix territory, and her singing was absolutely lovely – so the confusion and occasional unintelligibility of her texts added a birdlike dimension. Enhancing that avian quality, Adela was frequently attended by The Dresser, Walter Dundervill, who silently, ceremoniously presided over numerous costume changes.
While baritone Elliot Madore as Son doesn’t get quite the same array of plumage as Adela, Dunderville doesn’t neglect him in either of his roles, as The Dresser or the production’s costume designer. Though there is nothing purposeful in Son’s search for Father, Madore endows him with questing movement and tone. If you watch for the image of Father on the downstage scrim, looking up at you open-eyed as if you had stumbled upon his dead body on a Polish sidewalk, Madore will deliver the single dramatic moment in this opera.
Lim’s music is every bit as intricate, exotic, and nebulous as her cut-out of a cut-out would imply. Questioning the meaning of meaning and the reality of reality, Lim’s text gets irretrievably lost in her own labyrinth, but her music is often worthy of Montalvo’s beauty and occasionally justifies Madore’s emotional edge.
Directed by Andrea Cigni, the U.S. premiere of Pia de’ Tolomei at Sottile Theatre is a new too far. Donizetti based this tragic opera on Canto V of Dante’s Purgatorio, taking us back to Siena in the 13th century and the morally murky antagonism between the Guelphs and Ghibbelines. Cigni modernizes the opera and kidnaps Salvatore Cammarano’s libretto before we’ve experienced the original. He makes a pretty heavy-handed mess of it, too, transplanting the action to the 1930s, where the strife between ruling fascists and their oppressed opposition isn’t morally ambiguous at all.
The alteration throws our reactions to Donizetti’s characters seriously off-kilter. Could we go along with Romeo loving Juliet and attempting to befriend her brother if the Capulets were all Nazis? Here it’s Pia who is wedded to a fascist, maintaining her loyalty to him in spite of the fact that he falsely believes she is an adulteress, throws her into prison, and orders her death – after he has jailed her insurgent brother.
There is a tangle of mitigating circumstances. Pia’s husband, Nello, is persuaded of his wife’s infidelity by Ghino, a man who would like to commit adultery with Pia. Ghino has been convinced – by his gangsterish servant Ubaldo – that somebody else won her love. Pia’s presumed paramour is actually her brother, Rodrigo, newly escaped from prison.
Both Ghino and Nello can then have their faith in Pia restored, Ghino more readily than the more military Nello. When the order canceling Pia’s execution arrives too late, Donizetti and Cammarano probably expected us to feel some pity for the remorseful Nello as a forgiving Pia dies in his arms.
Under Cigni’s direction, our heroine’s forgiveness and Nello’s reformation are as hard to swallow as the cup of poison Ubaldo puts in Pia’s hands. Ah, but then there’s Donizetti’s glorious score, pushing our hearts in directions our minds are telling us not to go.
Tugging most powerfully against Cigni’s ministrations was baritone Valdis Jansons as Nello. Even when he was raging murderously at Pia, I could see Nello’s view of things, albeit through blinders. At the end, Jansons’ heartbroken realizations – and his sudden onset of tenderness – made me feel that Nello was nearly as much Ubaldo’s victim as Pia was. There was something for Amanda Woodbury as Pia to see under her husband’s military garb, and Woodbury’s sincerity pierced through the armor of Cigni’s concept to get to the heart of Donizetti’s creation.
Yet at the same time, Pia’s stand-by-my-man attitude remained unacceptable, no matter how much Nello had changed, for he still wore that uniform after she died. Ultimately, Cigni has been kinder to Dante than he was to Donizetti, for he has given us a sound reason, not to be found in The Divine Comedy, why Pia wound up in Purgatory rather than Paradise.
Lidiya Yankovskaya makes a wonderful debut conducting this score, ignoring the misogynistic mutilations that Cigni has layered onto it. The Spoleto Orchestra and the Westminster Choir are consistently lively and impassioned, and Yankovskaya gets the best from Isaac Frishman as Ghino, Cassandra Zoe Velasco as Rodrigo, and Nathan Granner as Ubaldo.
The merit of Pia de’ Tolomei peeps through triumphantly and, in more respectful productions, the opera could become recognized – and recognizable – as a masterwork.
Perry Tannenbaum regularly covers the performing arts scene in Charlotte, N.C., for Creative Loafing and CVNC. His CD and concert reviews have also appeared in American Record Guide and JazzTimes.