OPERA NEWS - The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
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Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field

CD Button Carrico, O’Regan Thiele, L. Mitchell, N. Mitchell; Robinson, Burchett; Harlem String Quartet, Frost. Cantaloupe CA 21107

Recordings Difficulty Cover 1115

Critics Choice Button 1015 BASED ON A ONE-PAGE short story from 1888, by the journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce, this chamber opera/theater piece from 2002 tells the story of a slave-owner in antebellum Alabama who sets out from his home one day across a nearby pasture and vanishes, virtually in plain sight of his neighbors and family. Commissioned by San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, composer David Lang and his librettist, the imaginative Obie Award-winning playwright Mac Wellman, have turned this charmingly plainspoken story into an intriguing and enveloping musical exploration of existence, loss, perception, loneliness, dignity, equality and the evils of slavery. 

The simple plot is related, Rashomon-like, from multiple perspectives, in seven different Tellings. As Mrs. Williamson, wife of the man who disappeared, Beverly O’Regan Thiele inflects her sparsely accompanied, gently melodic opening monologue with bluesy urgency. As the passage proceeds, O’Regan Thiele is joined by a male Slave Chorus, which intones each slave name in a pulsing cascade of rapidly repeated syllables in two-part harmony. Each choral outburst is kicked off by Laquita Mitchell, as a seemingly omniscient slave named Virginia Creeper, who proceeds with her own exhortations, both spoken and sung. This section is a perfect example of the considerable contrapuntal imagination and rhythmic complexity Lang deployed to create thoroughly original textures out of easily graspable building blocks. Lang also proves perpetually resourceful in his writing for string quartet (here, the wonderful Harlem String Quartet).

In the Third Telling, we hear from the Williamson Girl (Cree Carrico), who begins by earnestly announcing, “I think today is the day we should all stop talking.” Carrico, a notably versatile performer, plays up the humor in her part with a girlish impetuosity that spills naturally from her crystal-clear soprano-belt mix. Isaiah Robinson is Sam, the neighbor’s son, in the Fourth Telling, which features a spiky, driving ostinato and a sustained descant in solo violin to accompany Sam’s melodically striking, minor-mode declamations; choral interjections punctuate and reinforce Sam’s narrative. This is truly inspired writing, and Robinson’s strong delivery is attractively forthright and characterful. 

In the same section, Nicole Mitchell (as an Old Woman) uses her rich, earthy voice to knock out a convincing gospel-style number. Lang and Wellman are creative in the way they combine singing, speech and dialogue with underscoring. I found myself wishing that more of the spoken texts had been musicalized, but all the performers — the singers as well as the instrumentalists are the same who gave a concert performance of the work last year, at Roulette, in Brooklyn — do quite well with their dialogue, including Jay O. Sanders (as both Williamson and the Foghorn Leghorn-like Presiding Magistrate) and Daniel Zippi (Williamson’s neighbor Armour Wren). Baritone Christopher Burchett, as Williamson’s brother, the obliviously racist overseer, is particularly compelling, in both spoken and sung passages. Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost shows mastery of the rhythmically complex proceedings. By the end, Lang, Wellman and the performers have elevated this brief, obscure tale to the status of enduring, resonant, multilayered American myth. —Joshua Rosenblum 

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