Friday, March 4, 2011

problematic theater

copyright Thomas Bartilla

Last weekend marked the second time I have seen blackface on a Staatsoper stage. In December’s traditional Magic Flute, Monostatos was fully blacked up, a detail I found less offensive than puzzling. On Sunday, in the Schiller Theater’s Werkstatt, baritone Hubert Wild wore blackface and a smear of bright-green lipstick in Sophia Simitzis’s production of Hans Werner Henze’s monodrama El Cimarrón. Much has been written about blackface,* and its (mis)use represents a sad but integral aspect of American history, one which occasionally rears its head when college kids at my alma mater ruin Halloween.

Henze originally cast the black American baritone William Pearson in the role of the Afro-Cuban Cimarrón, the piece’s titular character. Though using a white singer might be a less “realistic” compromise, it is no less so than casting the short, Asian Kwangchul Youn as the giant Fasolt or the large, female Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo. Race plays an important role in El Cimarrón, but blacking up destroys any opportunity for dramatic nuance—it essentializes race, making blackness the Cimarrón’s defining characteristic.

The rest of Simitzis’s minimal staging did not add much subtlety; she dresses the Cimarrón in a white suit and panama hat in the first half of the piece and an army jacket in the second, and tacky video interludes show dancing green savages and cartoonish hijinks. Luckily, the four musicians (Wild along with flutist Ursula Weiler, guitarist Daniel Göritz, and percussionist Dominic Oelze) gave a fearsome, consummate performance of Henze’s riotously exoticist music. Henze’s work, with a libretto adapted by Hans Magnus Enzensberger from Miguel Barnet’s biography of the real-life Cimarron, is an extended monologue detailing episodes in a brutal life. The Cimarrón is a kind of Forrest Gump of Cuban history, a 103-year-old escaped slave who lived in the jungle, fought in the independence war against Spain, and participated in Castro’s revolution.

To tell the tale, Henze alternates between Pierrot-style Sprechstimme, sudden outbursts of lyrical singing, and terrifying screams, which Wild handled easily with a powerful voice and attention to detail. The three instrumentalists embraced the revolutionary fervor of the music, which often requires them to give up flute and guitar and thrash on thunder sheets and bongo drums. Henze’s writing recalls Le Marteau’s mix of sensuality and violence, but without its cryptic atonal rigor—anything goes. Latin American dance rhythms underlie percussive explosions; a Bach-like chorale melody weaves through flute and guitar when the Cimarrón sings about a lecherous preacher. It is music of violence and absurdity, but often delicacy, a quality which Simitzi’s production lacked.

I attended the ballet only twice in the past year, but both performances were hugely disappointing, travesties on completely opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. Last April, I saw the American Ballet Theater on tour in Chicago, in a stagnant, dusty Swan Lake which failed to breathe any life into Tchaikovsky's score; this Tuesday, I took in Tomaz Pandur's theater piece Symphony of Sorrowful Songs at the Staatsballett, an atrocity which lobotomizes the pulsing radiance of Górecki's Third Symphony.

Arguments about staging music focus almost entirely on opera. Newspapers and online forums constantly debate fallacies of Regietheater or follies of stilted, arch-conservative productions. But I wonder if the greater crimes take place in our ballet companies. Few music critics review ballet; when a company is on tour, there is no guarantee of any supervising musical presence (which can lead to trouble). With a top-tier opera company, there is a conductor in the pit to guarantee that the composer's original vision will be treated with respect (though many conductors have widely varied notions of what that original vision might be). If a musician did oversee the creation of Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, he did a shameful job.

I have never been so immediately infuriated by a performance. Pandur employs a recording of Górecki's symphony (the famous London Sinfonietta one, with David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw), a questionable decision given the high quality of the Staatskapelle orchestra, but an understandable one—it's expensive to book a quality soprano eight times who won't even appear on stage. What is not understandable is the complete lack of care with which the recording was handled. A poor, hissing sound system pumped out Górecki's music at a headache-inducing volume, such that Upshaw's voice sounded distorted from her first entrance. Periodically, Pandur made sharp cuts to the music, and during one of the music's most teeming, glorious moments, added a pretentious German voice-over discussing philosophies of time. When halfway through the seventy-minute piece, inexplicably, a Nat King Cole song blared through the speakers, the opening string flourish sounded so abrasively loud I honestly thought it was Xenakis.

Pandur's work, a commission from the Staatsballett which lies somewhere between dance and wordless theater, hijacks and cheapens the Górecki score; Ronald Savkovic's choreography, though virtuosic and often moving, bears no particular relation to its musical accompaniment (the dancers, though, were excellent). The aesthetic is something like hipster-fascist, the lead dancer naked except for knee-length, black leather boots and an Urban Outfitters-style furry hat. Various actions take place—a series of births with dancers emerging from plastic wraps, group numbers with women dressed as secretaries, ambiguously violent gestures, bloody ears, men riding bicycles. Normally in works of abstract, difficult theater, I make an effort to sympathize with the direction, but I could find no point of connection with Pandur, no artistic justification for this clearly-expensive production. Halfway through the work, when the recording audibly skipped, I wasn't particularly surprised. You've already eliminated the composer, the performers, and the art. Why bother to pay for a new CD?

*Nick Tosches’ excellent Where Dead Things Gather offers a valuable history and even defense of blackface and minstrelsy.

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