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In Review > North America

Kafka-Fragments (3/18/15) & Daphnis and Chloé (3/19/15)

NEW YORK CITY
Heartbeat Opera

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Annie Rosen and Jacob Ashworth in Ethan Heard's staging of Kurtag's Kafka-Fragments at Heartbeat Opera
© Christopher Ash 2015
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Karin Mushegain and Nicole Haslett, Daphnis and Chloe, in Louisa Proske's staging of Offenbach’s operetta
© Christopher Ash 2015

Heartbeat Opera, an ambitious upstart company, presented its first two full productions in repertory at New York City’s Sheen Center in March, and they couldn’t have been more different: Gyorgy Kurtag’s Kafka-Fragments (1985-86) for singer and violinist, and Offenbach’s little-known but delectable comic one-act Daphnis and Chloe. The audacity of choosing the Kurtag piece for the first fully-staged outing of one’s opera company cannot be overstated. The piece is forbiddingly astringent in its spare harmonic language, and full of ferocious technical demands for both vocalist and violinist. In addition, it was originally conceived as a concert piece, not as a staged work. The libretto consists of forty aphoristic snippets from Kafka’s letters and diaries. It is by no means obvious that there is gripping drama in this compelling and masterful but deeply enigmatic work, but that is precisely what mezzo Annie Rosen and violinist Jacob Ashworth brought to it, under the clearly inspired guidance of Heartbeat co-artistic director Ethan Heard.

Purely as a feat of virtuosity (and memorization), the hour-long performance was extraordinary. Yet beyond that, Rosen and Ashworth deployed their dazzling musical skills while enacting an intensely interactive two-person drama. The audience was given no specific context for the proceedings, but the pair appeared to be wartime refugees, temporarily seeking shelter in a small, spare, one-room apartment. Their joint music-making, usually singing and playing to each other at the same time, wove a fully-fleshed spectrum of emotion and experience, ranging from the soothing to the sensual to the terrifying. Ashworth, who navigated double glissandi, artificial harmonics, and dissonant triple stops with ease, also managed to be a thoroughly immersed dramatic participant, eliciting tenderness, fear, and passion from Rosen with his playing. For her part, Rosen deployed her rich, vibrant tone to fill even the most jagged vocal lines with shape and allure. This reinvention of Kafka-Fragments, with thoughtful, well-integrated contributions from Reid Thompson (set), Beth Goldenberg (costumes), Oliver Wason (lights), and Nicholas Hussong (projections), is an odyssey through alienation and near madness to a kind of transfiguration, and a flat-out triumph for its two fearless performers (who also created the English translation for the projected supertitles). 

Offenbach’s operetta Daphnis is essentially a sex comedy. When they’re together, Daphnis and Chloe have these, well, stirrings that they can’t explain and don’t know what to do about. Clearly, they will have to be instructed by a bawdy group of Bacchantes — four nymphs who just wanna have fun, and who are all lusting for Daphnis anyway. Pan, lecherously overseeing the shenanigans (disguised as a statue of himself), has carnal designs on Chloe, but just as he has his opportunity to introduce her to the ways of love, he drinks a potion that he believes is an aphrodisiac but is actually a serum of forgetfulness. Bummer! No matter — the Bacchantes have taught Daphnis a thing or two, and the now-enlightened couple can be wed. In this clever production by Louisa Proske (Heartbeat’s other co-artistic director), the whole thing comes off as a gleeful bacchanal, with choice comic touches (when Pan abandons his disguise as a statue, he leaves a teddy bear in his place) and overflowing innuendo. As Chloe, Nicole Haslett struck a perfect tone of wide-eyed, faux naiveté, which she combined with gorgeous, limber coloratura. As Daphnis, Karin Mushegain sang with an appealingly clear, ringing mezzo and unusually good diction. She subtly incorporated just the right touch of masculinity when appropriate, swaggering knowingly after her indoctrination by the nymphs. Gary Ramsey’s Pan consistently supplied vocal excellence amid his leering and comic blustering. The scrappy and exuberant five-piece instrumental ensemble played an inventive reduction by Daniel Schlosberg, led by the polished conductor Louis Lohraseb, whose expressive, inviting gestures clearly inspired the players. The Rocky Horror-influenced garb of the four Bacchantes (costumes by Beth Goldenberg, hair and make-up by Jon Carter) provided the perfect kinky touch. spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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