By Greggory Moore
Van Gogh and The Tell-Tale Heart
Long Beach Opera
May 19, 2013
The epistolary life chronicle may be a thing of the past. Who writes letters these days, let alone eloquent, forthcoming revelations of the psyche and soul? We're lucky Vincent Van Gogh did. We are able to match one of the most compelling painters in history with his experience in his own words. Most of those letters were to his brother Theo and basically provide the libretto for Michael Gordon's Van Gogh, a short opera in six parts, the first four of which shift between a quietly aggressive angularity (I was reminded of mid-period Fishbone, believe it or not) and a spare bleakness that evokes the great artist's profound loneliness, times in which (as he tells his brother) he would go days without speaking to another person, except to order his dinner. Gordon has some nice moments here, such as a sequence of letter fragments, each begun with a “Dear Theo” motif, each with some minor detail that personalizes the voice: “I was on the dunes”; “I spent my last penny on this stamp.”
Van Gogh is an ensemble piece for three singers (soprano Ashley Knight, tenor John Matthew Myers and bass Jason Switzer, seemingly cast based on how well their voices work together) and one speaker (Mark Bingelson)–all portraying Vincent–and it is in Part 5, when there is no singing and all four performers end up in the compartment representing Vincent's tiny atelier as he veers near suicide, that Van Gogh enters another realm, the music become gently rococo, the strings buzzing akin to some Middle Eastern pipe instrument whose name I've never known.
Part 6 is a denouement, the vocalist leaving the stage for spaces within and behind the audience, as Vincent pulls away from life, scratchy metallic percussion seeming to evoke a slightly grating music of the spheres, something grinding Vincent down even as he found moments in an aesthetic realm of resigned, idyllic bliss as he beheld that now-immortalized wheat field from his asylum window.
It's good that Stewart Copeland's The Tell-Tale Heart–making its U.S. premiere here–was second on the double-bill. Following its playfulness with the relative downer that is Van Gogh would have been death. But Long Beach Opera got the order right, and before the music starts, we've met drug dealer Alan (Bingelson) and his housemate Edgar (Robin Buck), who so can't stand Alan's pale blue eye that he kills him, boasting to us about how no madman could have pulled off such a meticulous crime.
True to his source material (i.e., Poe's short story), Copeland's narrator is a bit of a hysteric and doth protest entirely too much about his sanity, and that gets a bit old. Musically, Copeland walks us through some interesting polyrhythm, none of which ever draws too much attention. The most exciting bit, both visually and aurally, cloaks the murder itself. The sound seems to jump between percussion (Ben Phelps) and the rest of the spare orchestration (five strings, clarinet and guitar) furnished by the What's Next? Ensemble, just as the lighting and video projections on and behind the screens in front of the four stage compartments skip and flicker around, evoking Edgar's midnight fever dream as he did the deed.
Once the old man (i.e., Alan) has been dispensed with, The Tell-Tale Heart loses steam, with particular attention paid to a fragmentation of Edgar that was a bit confusing in the first place. But the fact that this doesn't quite work does not fatally diminish the fun of the production. Fun fact: You might search far and wide but never come across an opera with more singing from a horizontal position.
Van Gogh and The Tell-Tale Heart are solid, if not spectacular, musical works, the wares of two composers with a confident touch, and who are students of, but not slaves to, convention.