Sunday, September 16, 2012

Water Music - LBO's Paper Nautilus

Last weekend, Long Beach Opera inaugurated its Outer Limits series with three performances of The Paper Nautilus, by Gavin Bryars. Outer Limits is proclaimed to be a series for works that "don't fit into the spectrum of opera." Though lacking a linear narrative, The Paper Nautilus has a unifying theme of the sea. For an operatic work about the ocean, there couldn't be a a more perfect venue: the Aquarium of the Pacific.

When considering music about the ocean, Debussy comes immediately to mind. The Paper Nautilus was composed for soprano, mezzo-soprano, 2 pianos, and 6 percussion. Bryars' use of tuned gongs, floating melodies, and near pentatonic harmonies definitely invoked the spirit of Claude. There was even a moment after part V when a particular ostinato reminded me of Trent Reznor's La Mer (which Reznor admits lifting the title for from Debussy).

Soprano Ashley Knight and mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell floated beautifully through Bryars' impressionistic vocal writing. Their characters morphed into roles such as sea queen, an angler fish, or the ocean itself, all the while maintaining the mysterious air of beckoning sirens. Soprano Suzan Hanson joined them as Marie Curie, adding pantomimed action, spoken recitations of text, and a sort of narrative thread for those audience members that needed one. The sound of the 2 piano, played by Lisa Maresch and Neda Kandimirova, blended surprisingly well with the tuned gongs, steel pans, timpani, vibes, etc. of the 6-man percussion setup, played by The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet with Dave Gerhart and T.J. Troy. Aside from the sensitive playing of the ensemble, the eloquent collusion of timbres could also be attributed to the acoustics of the space, being both tall and curvy.

Director Andreas Mitisek made strong theatrical use of the space, even having dancers climb down from the balcony above. Projections by Adam Flemming offered constant stimulus, and the lighting design by Dan Weingarten artfully composed each scene while highlighting the architectural novelty of the space. However, the visual highlight was the slow motion illumination of the Blue Cavern exhibit that sat behind the staging area. It felt like an ultimately inevitable move, skillfully executed.

As much as this LBO production was a perfect pairing of venue and music, their 2013 season promises to be equally exciting: The Fall of the House of Usher by Philip Glass, ¡Unicamente La Verdad! by Gabriela Ortiz, Tell Tall Heart/Van Gogh by Stewart Copeland and Michael Gordon respectively, and Macbeth by Ernest Bloch.

Finally, a quote:
Of all sounds, water, the original life element, has the most splended symbolism...
- R. Murray Schafer

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