New ‘Face’ on opera’s edge

I am usually one of the last to rise during a standing ovation.  This is not due to any snobbery, laziness or lack of appreciation, but because I sincerely believe that not every performance deserves one.  “Standing Os” have become so commonplace that they have entered the realm of the ordinary — their meaning has been diluted, and their purpose lost.

Thomas Meglioranza and Janna Baty in The Face. Photo by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

Last night, however, I wholeheartedly broke my own rule.  I stood, I applauded, I cheered, out of pure enjoyment and genuine enthusiasm for good art and a performance that deserves high praise.  The premiere of The Face took place at the Aratani/Japan America Theater in LA’s Little Tokyo, a mid-sized house with a good stage and pit, eclectic offerings and a beautiful environment.  This first performance was highly anticipated, well-attended, and well worth waiting for, and I was certainly not cheering alone.

The Face is extraordinary in its complexity, its craftsmanship, and in its emotional depth.  It is a classic Faustian tale of loves lost and souls sold, told with a modernity that suggests yesterday afternoon in the heart of Hollywood.  The cast of four feels spare, but is anything from pared down:  tenor RAPHAEL (Daniel Norman) is a tortured poet who has lost his muse, MARINA (Jane Sheldon), a character we see only through his mind’s eye, via home movies that run from the top of the show.  Marina has died several years earlier, and Raphael has never recovered. INFANTA (Janna Baty), a filmmaker with talent and a wealth of ambition, arrives on the scene with CYBELE (also Jane Sheldon, now with red hair and the slink of a grasping, doe-eyed starlet), both greedy for “the role of a lifetime”.  Producer MEMPHIS (Thomas Meglioranza) lingers by the door as the women dance in sync, a mismatched set, sharing passionate kisses and a selfish agenda.  The three have come to seal the deal on a film about Raphael’s life, with Cybele playing Marina.  They coax Raphael to talk about his former life as Memphis languidly watches, skirting the scene and blowing a few bubbles, amusing himself until the time comes to jump in.  He then dances wildly to blues chords ala Robert Johnson, knowing Raphael will “sell his soul to the highest bidder”.

As the filmmaking ensues, Cybele plays her role to the hilt, serving as surrogate lover and feeding Raphael’s longing for his past life.  Her sensuality and persistence lead him further into an artificial bond with the actress as he attempts to invoke the spirit of his lost love.  Once filming ends, Memphis serves (and spikes) drinks that leave the group woozy and debauched.  Memphis’ true nature emerges as he sings an aria of Edge World, a portrayal of Hell as a theme park, where souls are bound and brought right up to the precipice, then pushed into a freefall.  The revel leaves Raphael alone in his despair, the perfect opportunity for Cybele to seduce him, with Infanta filming from the shadows.  Fully betrayed, Raphael battles his own mind as he struggles with self-destruction: “Only myself left to fight.”  His strength wins out, but as the movie premiere looms, it is clear that in the end, Raphael has sold his soul for a chance to relive love with his faux Marina.  By living in the past, he is left with nothing, and has given away even his memories, which are now public property:  “They will think they know you now,  …own you now.”  As Memphis, Infanta and Cybele celebrate their success, a pale face appears, an omen to the selfish trio, but a boon to Raphael, a sign of his own metamorphosis and survival.

Donald Crockett‘s music is well-crafted and full of surprises, with many abiding influences that peek out, a moment at a time:  For instance, several sections have multiple singers winding together down a twisted unison melody, but will then break into polyphonic chords from the most sublime vocal jazz, the notes resolving into each others’ acoustic frequencies.  His music isn’t modern for the sake of modernness — this music has something to say.  He weaves a fabric for this work, built on solid structure, leaving his intention clear without the necessity of any dumbing down.   The small orchestral ensemble is kept busy with thick textures and many twists and turns, but under the steady direction of conductor Gil Rose, it went off without a hitch.

David St. John‘s texts are often rhythmic and circular, rotating around disparate yet homophonic ideas and flipping them back and forth.  But this literary waltz makes clear sense: he shifts syntax to uncover hidden depths, play at the edges of what we think we know about ourselves and this art form.  Modern touches like “call me on my cell” make the text so relevant that it even makes people giggle.  It makes us again question our own perception of what opera is, and gives insistent reason to shed lingering stereotypes about the genre and what it can become in the future.

The cast of The Face. Photo by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The characters are richly realized, multi-dimensional, and thought-provoking, as each is a slave in his or her own way: Cybele plays minion both to her own desire for fame and to Infanta’s greed; Infanta is subject to Memphis’ power; and Raphael, of course, is bound to his longing for the past, allowing him to be manipulated by all three.  Even Memphis is driven by his own empty desires.  The role of Raphael is particularly physically grueling, and Norman handles it expertly, singing well from positions that would terrify most singers. The battle scene, where his internal struggle reaches the writhing, punishing peak of the ordeal, reveals his stature as a virtuoso actor. Sheldon does a particularly fine job of playing both sides of the Marina/Cybele coin:  While Marina, introduced via film flashback, is luminous, lovely, and a powerful yet artless goddess, Cybele is play-acting, pretending all of those traits, yet full of guile and driven by ambition. Baty’s voice is rich, lush and warm, but not without menace — just the thing for a seductress with a scheme in progress.  Meglioranza is appropriately slimy, charming in that loathsome way that makes him eerily believable as the devil himself.

All four sang exceptionally well, fully warming into their parts by Scene 3 and showing unusual skill with the rich and layered score.  There’s something extraordinary in the casual way these singers cast off their most complex and fragmented melodies — the lines sounds easy and fluent, just as they should.  This vocal facility normalizes the very modern compositional contours, giving listeners a better chance to get to the meat of the music: we’re not constantly distracted by the perception of difficulty as they perform, so we are better able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The set is exceedingly simple, with a large, pinstriped film screen on one side, a dark space for supertitles on the other, a long couch, and a few small set pieces that move on and off as needed.  For the most part, the set is nearly bare, with a catwalk running across the back that extends and divides the space and makes for good staging flexibility.  Much of the text is transcribed and projected for us, not so much as a crutch, but as one of two additional characters (the second below), as if the words stream from the poet protagonist’s ever-present typewriter.  The staging even works this antique prop into the sonic environment, with all the music of the old-fashioned carriage shift and bell.  It becomes part of the musical texture, but it’s also testimony to his connection to the world through the past:  Raphael is a tactile being, with a strong sense of physicality in everything he does, and a bit of an archaic sensibility.

Overall, this work is about tension across multiple divides:  good and evil, past and present, memory and reality, sex and solace.  The staging is raw and wrenching, but never gratuitous.  Sex itself is the second auxiliary character in the action, as overtly stated as it is ever-present in the subtext, but the director handles it deftly:  in an age when opera is taking stage sex to graphic lengths around the world, pushing boundaries for shock value and often leaving the story in the dust, this production was both more sensual and more effective by taking the action right up to the borders of salacity, then using artful suggestion to sell the rest.  There is no lack of lustiness, and even hints of raunch, when called for.  But all this overwhelming passion wasn’t distracting in and of itself: it was a legitimate part of the experience, and the right choice for the story.  Walking that tightrope takes skill and sensitivity on the part of the directors and in the performers’ execution:  kudos on all sides, particularly to stage director and choreographer Yano Iatrides, the Parisian wonder who cooked up this theatrical soup with strong, convincing dancing (these singers can move!) and smart dramatic choices.

I first learned of this project a couple of years ago, while working as a freelance writer for USC, crafting summaries from grant proposals for a PR piece.  The project caught my eye instantly: how could one resist doing a double-take, when faced with a “multidisciplinary chamber opera” that combines music, dance, film and poetry?  Crockett and St. John were obviously passionate about their project, gathering a team that crosses the country and crosses the Atlantic, combining forces to create something revolutionary.  Now that it has finally arrived, fully realized in glorious, living technicolor, it is one of a mere handful of small works I’ve seen in recent years that seems to have a real shot at surviving beyond the first wave of hubbub, beyond the circles of friends and family.  As one of the orchestra members enthused as we chatted in the parking garage elevator, “I want to see this opera make it.” Hear, hear.


Two more performances of The Face are available before the production goes to Boston next week:  Catch it on Monday, April 27 or Tuesday, April 28.  Buy tickets here.





1 thought on “New ‘Face’ on opera’s edge”

  1. David St. John is one of the rare few geniuses of American poetry
    and to know that an opera, based on certainly one of his most
    provocative and symphonic poem-sequences, “The Face,” was
    performed in Los Angeles and Boston, makes me hope that it
    tours world-wide for many decades to come.


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