Reviews of performing arts with emphasis on young artists and small opera companies.
We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.
Thursday, May 17, 2018
NOT SO CHIARO
Sarah Chalfy in Artemesia: Light and Shadow (photo by Dongsok Shin)
By Guest Reviewer Chris Petitt
Last night in Tribeca dodging hailstones, cascades tossed from rooftop swimming pools and various urban debris rattling around the canyons of downtown Manhattan, this reviewer approached Artek’s premier of Artemisia: Light and Shadow with the same anticipation and receptiveness to surprise that we do all opening nights at the theater. The room was intimate, the house was not quite full, and the audience signaled pleasure at intermittent points throughout the performance. Unfortunately, the evening fell short of expectations.
Artemisia: Light and Shadow is a one-woman interdisciplinary performance that depicts moments from the life and career of Artemisia Gentileschi, the brilliant seventeenth-century painter who gained renown as an artist among contemporary patrons and peers throughout Europe. Once regarded as something of a curiosity as almost a minority of one as a female professional painter, recent art historians have rehabilitated her position as a leading artist of her time, a member of the “Caravaggisti,” followers of the great inventor of chiaroscuro, or the enhancement of drama through light and shadow.
Set designer Paul Peers, lighting designer Chenault Spence, and costume designer Carol Sherry created an effective and visually pleasing scenic space for the story to unfold. The stage props were used expressively by soprano Sarah Chalfy, a capable actress who ably inhabited the space and character. The selection and presentation of projections of Gentileschi’s artwork were engaging, as were the lighting effects. Projected translations, while not always complete or accurate, aided in the comprehension of a narrative that often lacked the dramatic import of its protagonist’s artwork and actual experience.
Disappointingly, the well managed aspects of the production contrasted with the poorly conceived dramatic premise, resulting, for this reviewer at least, in an icing-without-a-cake effect. Artek’s well-executed projections and lighting effects were impressive, welcome, and came as a relief, particularly given some spotty production values in the past. However, these elements served a dramatic conception that undermined, rather than elevated, both the subject and the music of her time.
The configurations of the Flea Theater render it a less than ideal venue for this program. As appreciated as the acting and overall presence of Ms. Chalfy was, one’s ability to evaluate the quality of her singing was limited by a stifling acoustic. The small black box theater is no place for a classically trained voice, rendering Ms. Chalfy’s fortes shrill and her pianos breathy because there was no space for her instrument to bloom so that we could hear it properly. In a period where music embraced the same dramatic chiaroscuro as the painting, the pleasant but un-daring accompaniment of Gwendolyn Toth (lute-harpsichord) and Hideki Yamaya (theorbo) did not do much to help things along, as charming as the instruments looked in the corner of the stage.
Perhaps most unsatisfying was the absence of any kind of list of musical selections in the program booklet. While a few pieces were familiar to us (the fragmented Strozzi masterpiece "Lagrime Mie," for example), the inability to identify individual works as they were being sung did no service to the brilliant composers of the era and the cause of early music itself. The idea of including works by one of the greatest female composers who ever lived in a show about one of the greatest female artists who ever lived is an inspired one. Why then undercut that idea by handicapping a singer’s ability to be heard properly and erasing any credit to the composer whatsoever? If there was an assumption that every audience member would automatically be able to identify the musical selections without a program list, then that premise deserves another look. One needs to ask why a production that set out to celebrate a woman artist and the music of her time ended up shortchanging both.
Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by a colleague of her father’s, and, unusual for her time (or even ours), saw him brought to trial. Nahma Sandrow’s script combined original speech that incorporated portions of Artemisia’s letters and sections from the transcript of the rape trial. There was a sense that the volume and ideas and themes could not be accommodated and developed within the compact structure and time constraint, giving the impression of someone with a checklist of milestones from Artemisia’s life, struggling to include all of them in a one-hour format. The effect was one of melodramatic biographic telling of fragments of a life, the connections between them not always well-articulated, interspersed with random anachronisms, (Were there really “court reporters” in the 17th century?) and lacking a strong dramatic arc.
Gentileschi’s life story includes gaps as well as contradictions, and like most life stories, does not fit neatly into anyone else’s idea of a political narrative. One sensed the attempt here to flatten her varied and complicated biography into a #MeToo episode. This approach undoubtedly offered an easy sales angle to modern audiences, but ultimately betrayed this fascinating historical figure by reducing her complex story to a political meme. We are more interested in her as an artist who happens to be a woman, rather than as a member of the special category of women artists. While recognizing the influence of her experience as a woman on her artistic expression, it is a more dynamic position to assert the rightful presence of women in the community of artists. Also, such an approach would encourage reflection of the status of the artist in the seventeenth century and our own era.
Artek’s current series of performances at the Flea Theater are dedicated to Matt Marks, the young composer who died last week just a day after announcing recognition for his collaborative work with tonight’s set designer Mr. Peers on the opera Mata Hari by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He was a colleague of this production’s star Ms. Chalfy as a member of the musical group Alarm Will Sound.
Artemisia: Light and Shadow will be performed again Thursday May 17, Saturday May 19, both at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday May 20 at 4 p.m. The Flea Theater is located at 20 Thomas Street in the Tribeca section of Manhattan. Consult artekearlymusic.org for descriptions of the other programs of Artek’s spring series at the Flea Theater, which concludes May 20. (c) meche kroop