LOS ANGELES: anatomy theater
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In Review > North America

anatomy theater

LA Opera

In Review Anatomy Theater hdl 716
Timur (top center) as Ambrose Strang, with Peabody Southwell's Sarah Osborne, Robert Osborne's Baron Peel and Marc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch in the world premiere of David Lang's anatomy theater
Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera
In Review Anatomy Theater 716
Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera
In Review Anatomy Theater 2 716
Craig T. Mathew/LA Opera

ADVANCE PUBLICITY MADE IT APPEAR that David Lang’s anatomy theater, given its world premiere by the LA Opera in the Redcat Theater on June 16, was to be a grisly piece of historical reconstruction from the eighteenth century. In it, a prostitute, Sarah Osborne, would be hanged for murdering her husband and two children, and her cadaver would be dissected in full view of the audience. Although what we saw in performance did not lack gore and sensationalism, anatomy theater, a commission by Ridge Theater and Beth Morrison Projects, turned out to be a powerful morality play that addressed itself to some of the abiding terrors of our own time.

Lang and his co-librettist and designer, Mark Dion, delivered a take on these unsavory events that was intensely, even flamboyantly theatrical. The executioner, sung aggressively by Broadway star Marc Kudisch, bullied his way into our attention and served as the showman who both displayed and obscenely manhandled the corpse; under the executioner’s aegis, the stage became a space that both fascinated and repelled us. The moral dialectic was between Baron Peel, a professional dissector, who manically insisted that the dissection was a pious search for the source of evil in Sarah’s organs, and Ambrose Strang, the man who actually extracted the organs and, through examining them, insisted they were totally healthy.

Bass-baritone Robert Osborne, who delivered Peel’s hysterical speeches with magnificently sustained, slashing energy, made the character a monster who used the findings of modern science to pursue a vengeful campaign against the human race. Kazakh-American tenor Timur, a specialist in contemporary music, sang Strang, his brightly incandescent tenor providing an oddly effective counterweight to Peel’s viciously etched character. 

But the abiding presence in all of this was Sarah Osborne, sung by Peabody Southwell, whose spacious, richly resonant mezzo captured a wide range of emotion. Her execution speech swung from deep repentance through intense resentment to a defiance that claimed the fires of hell were preferable to the worst of the human condition. In the course of the dissection, during which Southwell lay naked on a slab for a good forty-five minutes, the character of Sarah assumed a strikingly benign presence, singing an aria of heartrending beauty that, despite the appalling mess that had been made of her body, allowed us to empathize deeply with the plight of women trapped in the brutality of a masculine world.

Sarah’s aria was all the more moving because its Romantic tonality implied a longing for an existence beyond this one. David Lang’s forceful score was otherwise anything but Romantic. Built partly on the melodies and vocal structures of eighteenth-century ballad opera, anatomy theater resembled most closely twentieth-century appropriations of these forms, notably by Kurt Weill, Stravinsky, and those Broadway composers influenced by them. The innovative LA musical collective wild Up, under the direction of Christopher Rountree, provided a striking accompaniment that instantly engaged the audience, but never allowed them a single moment of sentimentality.

Bob McGrath’s production allowed us to contemplate, in rapt but detached attention, a deeply tragic situation. The most horrifying moment came when Bill Morrison, the video artist, simply projected onto the front-stage scrim the awful instruments of incision and dissection that were used in this appalling operation.  —Simon Williams 

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