In perhaps their best yet, Long Beach Opera‘s reprise of David Lang‘s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field (debuted at LBO in 2011) is an astonishing triumph and an exemplary exercise in out-of-the-box thinking. The minimalist score and orchestration for string quartet (executed with energetic style by the first-class Lyris Quartet, right) make good use of the style’s characteristic driving repetition that has proven so compelling in deft hands such as Lang’s, complete with dramatic dynamic shifts and apt silence. There is almost as much spoken as there is truly sung, blurring the lines between opera and theater in a fashion that is very satisfying. But with a few exceptions, it is the production as a whole that is the big star.
Their formula: First, put the audience on the stage and let the proscenium be a window to the titular field, reimagining the Terrace Theater‘s 3000-plus seats as upholstered crops. Cover everything in a mist that seems to cling to the ground, yet also hangs in the air like magic, catching the light and serving as an additional, ghostly character. Through that field is a long road, a raised runway lit from within, running the length of the center aisle. Then put the “orchestra” on another platform, “stage left”, about halfway into the house, in their own circle of light. Place key players on stage pieces that rise and lower as needed, from within the pit. Accommodate the vast performance space with subtle use of microphones that is balanced and easy to ignore. Use lighting rather than sets to create mood, drama and a sense of space. Use the balcony as a space for a courtroom judge to look down on all from on high. Arrange staging so the players are sometimes a few feet away, sometimes in the far reaches of the world you’ve created, so onlookers can feel the vastness, the loneliness and the claustrophobia of life on a large Southern plantation.
This is all well and good — very creative, and fascinating to experience. But it doesn’t work without the talent, and the performances in this show are also exceptional.
The tale is based on a very short story (just 750 words) by Ambrose Bierce, set before the Civil War, and about an isolated but prominent Southern family and the sudden disappearance of their patriarch. The plantation owner, Mr. Williamson, walks out into the field one day, witnessed by the slaves, his family and others. Then he’s gone, and no one seems to know how or where. Is it a supernatural event, willful desertion, or foul play? Bierce was one of the first prominent authors to create this sort of mysterious questioning story that we may now associate with the Twilight Zone: in his program notes, composer David Lang says of the writer, “his stories often give you the feeling that if you could examine closely the most ordinary objects that surround us you would uncover a mystery that would throw your world completely out of balance.” Paired with playwright Mac Wellman, whom Lang met while working at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, this opera expands that magnificent vagueness and whips it to a frenzy, leaving us wondering what is real, what is hidden, what is conspiracy and what is simply unknown: (Lang again) “No one knows the truth. Perhaps there is no truth. But there are infinite possible consequences…”
One of the things that sets LBO apart is that their Artistic & General Director, Andreas Mitisek, is less often holding the baton, but is more likely of late to be designing and staging the productions. This has proven an important choice for the company, as it allows him to focus on the “big picture” of every production and get far more involved in crafting the overall experience for operagoers. Not every production is as successful dramatically as this one, but Difficulty plays to LBO’s strengths, showing us where the company is special, and why they consistently pop up on lists of cultural groundbreakers, near and far.
Those strengths begin and end with the talents of the troupe, for LBO is largely a troupe company, loyal to the players who have proven themselves over and over in often wild productions and challenging environments. This show is no different, with regulars Suzan Hanson (soprano, Mrs. Williamson), Mark Bringelson(actor, Mr. Williamson), and Robin Buck (baritone, Armour Wren / Andrew) anchoring the cast. They are joined in the principal roles by Valerie Vinzant (Williamson girl) and Eric B. Anthony(Boy Sam).
Hanson (right) is madly ethereal and simply riveting, clearly in her element, with a rich, full sound, especially at the top. This staging requires a peculiar stamina, as she is anchored to a tall stool on a moving platform, with a long swath of black skirt sweeping to where it is pinned to the floor — she is a large letter A, leaving her to portray her character only from the waist up, lest she topple over and land in our laps. The exceptional expressiveness of Hanson’s hands and face are the sirens drawing us into her madness, as her husband’s departure has left her stricken far beyond grief — it is “something more than a mere disappearance”. Throughout, her singing is woeful and penetrating, and includes sections of gymnastic achievement that leave the audience breathless.
Bringelson plays both field-crosser and judge, to great effect — he is the embodiment of the patriarchal Old South, so making him both the terribly unsympathetic “victim” of an unexplained fate and the man who must decide the future of the estate is somehow symmetrical. This is an actor of staggering talent, a master of physical detail, as evidenced in his previous appearance in Van Gogh / Tell-Tale Heart last season. This portrayal is marked by aggressive physicality, cock-sure and macho, with insolence that shows Williamson as childish and singularly unevolved, while the judge is more thoughtful, commanding, frustrated by the convoluted case but ultimately decisive.
In the dual roles of the key witness (a neighbor) and Andrew the overseer, Robin Buck (left) is alternately scared and clearly hiding something. Armour Wren speaks more of what his son’s testimony (the son is absent from the opera), evading questions with apparently simple-minded confusion. Andrew, who is the overseer in the story but also Williamson’s brother in the opera, is smooth, conniving and not exactly grieving. Buck’s singing is sure as always, with a consistent tone and impressive dramatic range.
The big revelation in the cast is Valerie Vinzant (right), whose breathtaking performance predicts a bright future for this up-and-coming soprano. Her tone is liquid to the top, shimmering where others would falter, in a portrayal that is pleading, desperate and absolutely magnetic: she is elegantly beautiful, but swimming in grief. This is an artist to keep an eye out for.
Eric B. Anthony (with ensemble, below), as Boy Sam, did a fine job with a voice that is clearly rooted in his musical theater background, and leans toward gospel in the high endings. His voice has a pointed sound, almost suggesting a countertenor aesthetic, but shows plenty of potential.
The small chorus was made up of eight notable single voices, with solos throughout, yet was a fairly cohesive ensemble, acting as a sort Greek-style chorus, portraying the individual and collective thoughts of the community and the political and emotional rumblings that are the undercurrent to any local mystery or scandal. Their interjections are rhythmic outrage, wonderings, and an expression of public frustration, and the group was at their most glorious during interludes of full-voiced close harmony. As a group, they showed unusual dynamic range and responsiveness, taking their cues from conductor Krystof Van Grysperre, projected onto a screen behind the seated audience. Mitisek’s inventive choreography particularly shone during sequences of fragmented movement that created a collage of reactions to the situation at hand.
Standout performances came from Lindsay Patterson, charismatic as a tent meeting minister, with a luminous voice that haunts and thrilled, and Michael Paul Smith, whose gorgeous bass-baritone sound was even more startling as it became appropriately and subtly edgy and uneven in color, singing as he endures a beating. That kind of control, from a voice that is otherwise rock-solid and consistent, is just inspirational.
With powerful lighting design by Dan Weingarten and costumes (uncredited) that made the most of those lighting choices, the overall look and arc of the production served the story well. The operatic adaptation created by Lang and Wellman certainly takes some liberties, e.g. making the daughter older and also a writer (Bierce’s voice?) and her friendship with Sam. The conceit that Andrew is also the brother seemed to affect the audience’s conclusions dramatically, perhaps filling gaps in the story a little too neatly. But if we didn’t have access to the original, it wouldn’t matter — it works too well for a real quibble.
The talkback session with the audience after the show’s end left me on the fence. While interesting, it seemed to draw to consensus some conclusions that may better have been left to individual thought. What was the level of abuse going on in the house? If it was foul play, whodunnit? Where does Andrew fit in, and what’s with all the horse talk? The symbolism is rich and compelling, but once various people spoke, it seemed that we were supposed to accept the various conclusions as answers, where there is sometimes more to be learned from the questions. I would have preferred some time to ponder before being encouraged to figure it out. But it’s clear that many people appreciated this chance for group exploration, and the group discussion was probably a risk worth taking.
Learn more about this production, the 2015 season and the company at Long Beach Opera’s website
Read the original short story by Ambrose Bierce (also published in the program)