Left Coast Chamber Ensemble gave us two world premieres to kick off June and to end their 26thseason: Chris Stark’s “From the Field” and Laura Schwendinger’s “Artemesia.” Stark’s first opera lasts all of 17 minutes but packs a wallop of far-reaching content: Climate Change in the U.S., and beyond. Laura Schwendinger’s “Artemesia” joins past and present in an original and provocative way: the world of 17thcentury Italian Baroque painting and today’s #MeToo movement.
Not simply informative, however, the twin bill, “Dorothea and Artemesia” offered an aesthetic and provocative excursion into worlds in which art and information count and at the same time.
Stark’s opera features Dorothea Lange, brilliant photographer of the Depression Era as the lynchpin of the whole. An independent and sharp-eyed observer, Lange was “commissioned” to photograph the Southwest to “prove” the government was taking care of business with regard to drought and the farmers who struggled to endure it. Not so, Lange showed. Instead Lange revealed how the government contradicted “their own research” leaving substantial regional and human suffering. Face after face of the emptiness and drought of care comes through Lange’s black and white portraits, some of which Stark use in collage of black and white stills and video.
The libretto, created by Megan Stark, sister to the composer, is drawn from the Farm Security Administration Online, and more than tells the story. As do some actual inserts of letters. Not always but often, it comes to the edge of poetry.
In variations of “Alone in the field,” reminiscent of Benjamin Britten in “Peter Grimes,” especially as sung by Soprano Nikki Einfeld, bright, resonant, and poignant. Einfeld brings even more life to the multi-layered work.
A petite and powerful presence, Einfeld moved through the stages of discovery and revelation of the problem with tenderness and toughness. She crept around the fields – Lange herself had polio as a child, and leaving her with a limp – explored the photographer’s studio where she plucked the negatives with attentiveness, while exploring the lament wrapped inside it. Her voice cast a spell on the information, enabling it to draw us to it and down into its cavernous depths.
The final segment of the three-section opera features a video of Stephen Running, Climate Expert, delivering a straight-forward speech about the perils of ignoring climate change, visualized in section I about Lake Powell and John Powell in the late 19thcentury and the obvious government cover-up. When you care about human beings and their lives, you are devastated by the lies the “guardian” of those lives commits to further its greed. What a perfect medium to display the conflict – plaintive music and sound side by side with black and white exposure of deceit.
The intensity of the musical sound, performed with expertise by Leighton Fong, Cello, and Anna Presler, Violin, and, of course, led by Nikki Einfeld’s probing and penetrating Soprano, dramatized the subject and drove it home. The trio scissored and sawed the story with clarity and keenness. The music never separated from the story, the story from its beauty and determination.
In form, “From the Field is an email vs a letter, an e-message in lieu of an email. And yet, within its frame, it pulses with feeling and thought.
“Artemesia” is a good match for Dorothea. More of a tale, with multiple scenes, Schwendinger’s score and Ginger Strand’s story not only casts its spell but awakens us again to the continuing conflict of men, women and art that has pervaded western history. What is unique about #MeToo movement today is that it is hardly unique. From “Tess of the D’Urbevilles,” to “The Scarlet Letter” among countless others, we have sites of suffering that are brutal. Schwendinger/Strand bring the world’s violence close without dismissing the urgency of the past and the need for rectification.
Here is Artemesia Gentileschi, a follower of the dynamic painter Antonio Caravaggio, brought to life in her rightful place. Performed by Bethany Coffland, with solid, thought-provoking and ardent singing and acting, we are in the presence of woman as artist who is solid in her paces all the while enduring the violation of the world around her. We believe her and we believe in her. In the opera, she becomes a model for active and assertive artists and women.
The music challenges. The texture is rich. The variety of instrumentation stimulates and complements the complex issues alive in the script. Flute/piccolo, accurate and incisive, piano and percussion extending and developing motifs, harp and strings, provides a musical brocade that is excellent sister to the story, excellent transmitter of the story. Both reveal the complexity and do not hold back from riveting us to it. Hofman articulated the score with emphasis on these layers of story-telling emerging from the apparently straight-forward “standard” woman as victim scenario.
Artemesia is no simple victim. In fact, despite being a victim of her mentor Tassi’s violence, she does not lose either her autonomy or her power. She fights back. Her father is like the “ghost” male presence who lay her before Tassi for aesthetic training, hovers over the story. Culprit? Maybe. One man’s blindness leads to another. The libretto showed Artemesia as prey to these two and Signor Oculist who subjects her to life-threatening cataract surgery, he recipient of her letter, Don Russo, whose request for a naked Diana, Artemesia rejects in favor of her own non-nude woman heroine. Artemis.
Only Tommaso, her apprentice and helper is a male whose tenderness and care tender and moving character sung by Kyle Stegall and an artistic invention – offered an alternative. Sweetness, kindness, not over-bearing. Occasionally strained voice and a little too obsequious. A good compatriot in Artemesia’s quest, however, step by step matching her goal and helping to keep her on target.
Although intriguing some of their conversations go on too long; so too, including so many aspects of the story. Perhaps more streamlining would move the work along more energetically. How much do we need to respond to the crime committed here, to woman, to art, and human being?
Perhaps one of the most telling and original features of the opera was the coming to life of Susanna, in the painting Artemesia created, did and sung with such moving and fine detail by Marnie Breckenridge. Persuasive and alluring, Breckenridge’s acting and singing conveyed the violation and the ensuing and long-lasting suffering, her sound lustrous and plangent. So too Einfeld as Abra, providing another dramatic and cogent layer. The costumes thoughtful and effect, color wise and various and particularly, Artemesia’s plain and evocative dress.
Tassi, performed by baritone, Jonathan Smucker, who performed additional roles as well, was convincing. Slimy he was, lust exuding his movement and his sound. He sang the horror, and hideous heart. So too his side-kick, Cosimo, sung by Igor Vieira. The doubling of parts was, of course, practical, but Tassi switching roles after the Trial to Signor oculist worked except letting go of his criminal nature to become Artemesia’s healer was an audience challenge.
One contrast to the spartan presentation of “From the Field,” here we have an over-plussage of detail. The story could be streamlined somewhat without loss of intensity or essential detail. So too, the slides broken on the columns. At least once, to see straight one Artemesia’s work without being broken across the screens. The fracture smothered first-hand experience.
The staging was good, the lighting nicely amplifying the changing emotion as the story progressed. Using bright lights facing audience was an excellent good idea but painful in its brightness. A little shorter shot would work better. That connects with a sense of too much repetition, too much exposition, raising the question of the style of music being the catalyst for that. Unlike a “Madama Butterfly,” Cio-Cio San, another victim of male domination, where the music lifts and lets us down in its own musical language, without the lyrical style we are given more detail than we need. A trade-off, as with email – short/sweet and punchy, but lacking the depth, and the complexities of feeling, and the leading with the head rather than the heart. Too bad. The part of narration that music brings is hard to digest with music that is more head-oriented, dissonant and “agitato.” At least in the theater; on paper, it might be otherwise.
Chamber opera inhabits its own special world – thought-provoking subjects with interpretations that penetrate experience in a more intimate and intense way than grand opera usually does. We engage in historical subjects that are often out-of-date, or less relevant to us today in our own politics, even though there are, of course, parallels. Chamber Opera allows us opportunity to explore the world with different lens and to see even more than we expect in a theatrical setting. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble brought us exactly that and we are far richer for it.