Last week I took advantage of the rare opportunity to watch the film components of Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster Cycle — the artist's monumental multimedia installation/performance piece consisting of sculpture, photography, installation and film.
The five films, which were being screened at Manhattan's IFC Center, almost defy written description: there are surreal creatures, abstract and remote settings, and a loose, coming-of-age plot to the cycle, something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set in Narnia. Music is an integral part of the cycle, and composer Jonathan Bepler has scored nearly every moment of it. In Cremaster 3, the protagonist (played by Barney) rigs an elevator shaft in the Chrysler building as a harp — leaving the other empty shafts as drones — which a Gaelic-singing maître d’ (played by Paul Brady) uses to accompany himself.
I saw the cycles in order by title (Cremasters 1 through 5 were filmed in 1996, 1999, 2002, 1995, 1997, respectively). This is an occupational hazard, admittedly, but as I watched the films, I wondered what it would be like if Barney were to direct an opera. Cremaster 5 offered the answer to that question: Barney set most of the film inside Budapest’s State Opera House, with the Budapest Philharmonic playing in the pit, while a costumed climber (again played by Barney) climbs up, across and down the proscenium, as former Bond-girl Ursula Andress "sings" from the theater’s Royal Box. (Soprano Adrienne Csengery does the actual singing.)
The result, however, is a bit of a letdown. Bepler, who is a talented orchestral composer, fails to create much variation in the vocal parts. Where he is otherwise capable of creating spontaneous rhythmic texture, he provides Csengery with what seems like one endless legato phrase, with a tepid orchestration underneath. She is less than pleasant to listen to: her intonation is spotty and she sings with one of the widest vibratos around. Andress, and her accompanying twin sprites, perform a campy lip-syncing job to go along with it.
With the proliferation of operas in high definition, it’s possible to imagine Barney directing an opera, without omitting any of the media he synthesizes so well. Judging by the ending of Cremaster 5, I’d say the director may be ready to direct Rusalka.
– Tristan Kraft
More information can be found at www.cremaster.net, the IFC Center and the fan-site Cremaster Fanatic, where one can see Barney and family sitting at the MOMA’s Marina Abramović exhibit, or the avant-garde artist modeling for Macy's in the late 1980's.