Prototype Festival 2020 Review: Magdalene

Danielle Birrittella & Zoe Aja Moore’s Creation Explores the Power of Unity Through Form & Content

By David Salazar

This review is for the performance on Jan. 13, 2020.

It all started with a breath. But it wasn’t a relaxed breath but an irritated, almost obstructed one. And there was a moan or a hum; a repeated one that built a unique tension and longing at the HERE Mainstage.

This is how “Magdalene,” the latest opera created by Danielle Birrittella and Zoe Aja Moore and featuring poetry by Marie Howe and music by 14 women composers, began.

That breath, as noted by co-creator Danielle Birrittella in the program notes, is “the root, breath as the essential, elemental expression of being and life force.” It truly is the one thing that connects all of us together. The breath is also described as a “portal” to connect with the central figure that the monopera seeks to explore – Mary Magdalene. In this work, the creators sought to distance themselves from the mythology surrounding Mary Magdalene and portray her instead as an expression of real, contemporary women.

As such, the opera is more a kaleidoscope of expression with all of its disparate parts coming together to create a cohesive, expressive whole. Moore, who directed the production, uses this idea of separation to create unity in a number of ways.

She sets her stage with two distinct locations behind and in front of a curtain that cuts the stage in half. The half of the curtain closest to the audience features a rectangular pool that embodies freedom; behind the curtain is a more concrete world portrayed by a table and a sink; having this latter set behind the curtain creates a feeling of being trapped and hidden; the curtain that divides the two sections of the stage often features a wide range of projections from concrete scenery to more abstract visuals of distinct (or not so distinct) fluids. But even these disparate sections are part of a cohesive whole that illustrates but a smaller part of a larger world that the text and overall opera seem to suggest, with several instances relating a unity of disparate times and spaces.


Two As One

But she also explores this sense of division and unity through her two performers, soprano Danielle Birrittella and dancer Ariana Daub, both interpreting as M. While the former verbalized the emotional landscape of the pieces, the other provided a more abstract and internalized manifestation of her emotions.

At times the two mirrored one another with their gestures and hands; during “The Teacher,” the two lit a candle together and in another, the two took pieces of clothing and held them like infants over the water before commencing to wipe them across the pool. In these moments, you had a distinct feeling that they were truly one.

But then they were also individuals within this oneness. Birrittella wore a beige dress, while Daub’s wardrobe was a bright and potent red. In distinct moments, they played off one another, creating a far more complex emotional landscape through voice and movement.

Nowhere was this more apparent than during “Magdalene: Her Dream of Integration.” As Birrittella, centered in the pool downstage, sang about wanting to make love with “both of them at the same time,” Daub, completely nude, lay down in the pool downstage and crawled backward toward Birrittella eventually meeting with her. Daub’s movements, full of sensuality as she waded through the water, seemed to act both as the manifestation of the sexual act Birrittella described, but also as a stark reminder of its elusiveness; Daub’s own calm facial expressions during this were in complete contrast with those of Birritella’s more anxiety-ridden ones. In this moment, they were united and yet so clearly independent of one another.

Daub, who performed a lengthy portion of the opera in the nude, also provided stark contrast with Birrettella with regards to the pacing of her movements. There was a sense of broad calculation, a languid pace that created a sense of calm and tranquility. It highlighted a strong sense of stability amidst the constant emotional shifts presented by the music.


Many Voices As One

The opening poem, “Before the Beginning,” which featured music by Bergrun Snaebjörnsdóttir, featured harmonic runs on the strings with more a spoken vocalization that would further transform into more yearning straight tone on repetitions of “Again and Again without knowing who or why or from whence it came?”

Then the ensuing piece, “How the Story Started,” composed by Sheena Birrittella, was far more bel canto in its approach, the soprano unleashing a gentle legato plush with vibrato over an arpeggiated harp.  As the number moved toward its denouement, her voice settled into a softer piano quality, the vibrato less present and the phrases more detached, the sense of longing somehow more prevalent.

There was greater brightness but introversion in Christina Courtin’s “Low Tide, Late August” with “The Landing” among the most virtuosic displays and arguably the most musically complex piece. In the very first line, composer Leila Adu had Birrittella whip her voice up and down via on the repeated expressions of the word “high” followed by increasingly lengthened portamenti which served to break the musical spell created by the strings and arpeggiated harp; the voice shifted to a muted whisper a few phrases later; straighter tone followed on “we couldn’t find when we needed them near the front of the stairs, before Birrittella’s voice gained in weight and volume on “What did we call that space?” Then it would shift back to a spoken quality, the portamenti, the full-intoned high notes, creating a portrait of the character seeking out a vocal identity.

Kamala Sankaram’s “What did I do Wrong” featured an electronic track alongside the quartet with Birrittella’s voice soaring over the heavier orchestration. “Their Bodies,” composed by Tanner Porter, showcased her way with text, Birrittella’s voice showcasing a particular bite as she described the different penises, her attention fixed on the audience; it was the most humorous moment in the show, but her singing went from a more detached and drier quality to a more resplendent tone that added a sensuality to the interpretation.

“Magdalene: Her Dream of Integration,” with music by Gabrielle Herbst, had intense longing in every vocal enunciation, which contrasted with the ensuing peace “Two Animals,” where a nasal quality took over her voice as she narrated “she crouched, her eyes wide;” this particular peace called back to the shifting vocal challenges of “The Landing.”


Perhaps the most impressive musical moment of the night was saved for last with “Magdalene Afterwards,” featuring music by Emma O’Halloran. This segment, which connects the idea of Magdalene across time and space (the narrator shifts from “I was hung as a witch by people in my own town; I was sent to the asylum at sixteen” to other such proclamations) is truly the culmination of the entire piece. While Birrittella is but one voice, she is embodying the voice of all women, as she has throughout and this is borne out through a shift in styles and qualities throughout the number, eventually blooming into a thrilling high note on “a joy.” The concluding lines provided a calm end to the journey of longing, a sense of tranquility taking over with the voice slowly fading into the purity of silence.  It is at this ending when, despite Daub’s absence on stage, there is a sense that Birrittella’s M. is finally one with the dancer. “Magdalene Afterwards” also featured a glorious string accompaniment that often felt like waves of music growing and growing to an impossible climax before relaxing into gentle string harmonics.

The Desdemona Ensemble, comprised of five women, under the musical direction of Mila Henry, was fantastic throughout, adding great depth to the journey as it unfolded. Harpist Sonia Bize provided a sense of the ethereal and the spiritual throughout the performance, especially in her first entrance during “How the Story Started;” the sudden arrival of the harp shifted the entire environment, which had been built on the tension of the breaths and moans and the shifting harmonics in the strings throughout the first passage. The strings, meanwhile, provided a more grounded contrast.

Curating a work such as this one, with a wide range of distinct voices and ideas, is no easy feat. And there are times where some of the musical ideas and themes overlap, causing a sense of repetition and even slowdown in the piece’s overall momentum. But just when you think it might be getting to the point of monotony, it manages to provide a surprise with a number with the sharp humor of “Their Bodies” or the pathos of “Magdalene: Her Dream of Integration,” and fantastic writing of “The Teacher;” this latter poem in particular comes closest to bringing the audience to Mary Magdalene’s religious connections. She asks if he was her husband, lover, or teacher, then refers to differ interpretations in different books. In a different line, she refers to a “teacher who died in public” and “a teacher who was a child,” before dropping a powerful reversal “a girl.”

There is no doubt that “Magdalene” greatest power comes from its expression of unity, both in the content and in its very form. It is truly a breath of pure creative power.


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