I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
Théâtre du Châtelet
Adams's I Was Loooking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky at the Châtelet in Paris
© Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet 2013
Following its success with John Adams's Nixon in China last year, the Châtelet's final production this season was the composer's 1995 songplay I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, continuing the theater's exploration of American music theater. Next season promises a full program of musicals and a new production of A Flowering Tree, by Adams.
The theater's current Adams production had its premiere on June 11, conducted by Alexander Briger in a production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti. I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky is a collection of songs and neither an opera nor a musical. The composer's term "songplay" suggests the German Singspiel, but the almost total lack of spoken dialogue makes this more of a thematically linked song cycle, providing a kaleidoscope of popular music styles from Bebop to hard rock, underpinned by the composer's minimalist musical voice. It is an impressive piece of pastiche — a skillful exploration of American popular music that nonetheless retains the composer's musical signature. However, the hybrid mix suggests that Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Supertramp et al. might be more memorable on their own terms, rather than reinterpreted by Adams in this well-meaning but self-conscious tribute. The best moments come when the composer is at his most personal, as in the tight musical ensembles and the more traditionally operatic scenes in Act II. The rhythmically sprung setting of the work's title song is magical, and the girls' trio praising the qualities of "bad boys" is a clever piece of comic writing, all supported by the great playing of the eight-piece band (saxophones, keyboards, electric guitar and clarinets against a drum set) under the rigorous baton of Briger, even if classical conducting looked oddly inappropriate for some of the pop moments.
The work follows the lives of seven individuals before and after the earthquake that shook Los Angeles in 1994. The libretto, by poet June Jordan, is witty and incisive, but the problematic lives of the characters veer dangerously toward the sentimental. The trio of girls includes family-planning advisor Leila (Janinah Burnett), who encourages Consuelo (Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi) to stop producing babies. Television executive Tiffany (Wallis Giunta) is the proud presenter of a show promoting crime as entertainment, in which she joins her would-be boyfriend Mike (John Brancy) on his police rounds. Mike's well-meaning work with local bad boys is filled with sexual contradictions. Rick (Jonathan Tan), an idealistic young lawyer who is the son of Vietnamese boat people, petty criminal Dewain (Carlton Ford) and David, a smooth-talking, philandering pastor (Joel O'Cangha), make up the male quartet. This society melting-pot interacts around the earthquake, in which Leila dies, and which serves as a learning curve for the other characters. All of the soloists sounded at home with the amplified pop styles, and their stylistic virtuosity was one of the main pleasures of an evening in which Ford's Dewain was outstandingly well projected.
Corsetti is remembered at the Châtelet for his highly successful production of Rossini's Pietra del Paragone. On this occasion, his direction of the loose-limbed cast was faultless against the simple modular set, which delivered an exciting earthquake. Visually, the evening was enhanced by a clever use of Igor Renzetti's contemporary video techniques: giant projections of the characters and clever video tracing were never an end in themselves but put to the service of this hybrid musical evening.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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