Mr. Lang, who also wrote the libretto with Mark Dion, based his work on texts from the 16th and 17th c, a time during which the church held sway over people's beliefs and there was no science without the encroachments of religion. It was posited that the devil's evils were implanted within people's bodies. But in which organ? That was left to anatomists to determine.
These dissections were open to the public and one wonders whether bloodthirsty entertainment was involved along with moral instruction. This would be a rather different situation from that which is depicted in Rembrandt's painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nikolaes Tulp" in which seven scholarly scientists can be seen watching Dr. Tulp's dissection of a cadaver's left arm, all in the spirit of scientific inquiry.
The bulk of Mr. Lang's piece takes place in a more public theater in which men (no women allowed) observe the post-mortem dissection of the recently dead Sarah Osborne (mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) who murdered her abusive husband by drugging and smothering him, after which she smothered her two children. And yet, one can feel sympathy for this poor creature when she relates the sordid details of her miserable life.
Before the show actually started, audience members were welcomed to the BRIC performing space by costumed "wenches" who offered steins of beer and sausages before the hanging took place. Indeed we felt transported back to the 18th c. when bodies of executed convicts were made available for public dissection. There was a festival spirit as poor Sarah was dragged through the corridors of the space by hooded men, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.
The poor woman confessed and told her tale and was convincingly hanged in a scene of frightening verisimilitude. Her body was purchased by one Joshua Crouch (Mark Kudisch) to provide fodder for the anatomy theater. We in the audience became the observers and therefore complicit.
The shots there were called by one Baron Peel (bass-baritone Robert Osborne) but the actual bloody work was performed by one Ambrose Strang (tenor Timur). The instruments involved were shown and discussed and the unfortunate subject was covered with blood in a scene as convincing and disturbing as the hanging.
Although no aberrations were found in the organs, Mr. Peel would not be seen giving up on his religion-inspired belief. What was interesting to us was that the same deed could be conducted in the spirit of the advancement of science or, alternatively, to advance the cause of religion. The dissection was just an additional measure of punishment for the miscreant.
As a subject for a theatrical work, this was a daring choice. The execution (pun not intended) of the concept was superb, with Bob McGrath's direction most effective. Mr. Dion's set design featured a cabinet of skulls and surgical instruments; Video Designer Bill Morrison and Projection Designer Laurie Olinder provided meaningful contributions by way of antique drawings. Christopher Kuhl's lighting and Alixandra Gage Englund's costume designs were effective.
When we see a piece such as this one, we think of it more as a play with music than as an opera. We ask ourselves whether the music contributes to the telling of the tale. We liked Christopher Rountree's conducting of this eclectic music, especially the sections of minimalism that brought Philip Glass and Steve Reich to mind. Although the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble were not identified in the program, their performance of the music was just fine. Along with strings we spied a trumpet, a flute, and the beloved bass clarinet. But we cannot say that the music told us any more about the characters on stage than the performers did. We think about Mozart's characterizations and how they told us so much about the bravado and defiance of Don Giovanni, for example, or about the dignity and despair of the Countess Almaviva.
The vocal lines were not at all melodic but we no longer hope to find that characteristic in contemporary operas, which is the reason we are rather unwilling to experience them. In the case of Anatomy Theater, we enjoyed the work for the drama and the effective realization of the story.
The performers were particularly effective at conveying the drama. As already noted, Ms. Southwell evinced sympathy for her character, Mr. Kudisch was appropriately lascivious and slimy. Mr. Osborne generated total conviction in the rightness of his work, and Timur showed the doubts of Mr. Strang as he found no signs of the devil in the extracted organs.
We take exception to the amplification of the voices, leaving us unable to evaluate their honest timbre. Fortunately we have heard Mr. Osborne before on numerous occasions and recall well how fine a singer he is. The other artists were unknown to us so we cannot comment on their vocal skills. We are not sure why body microphones were used, in light of the small size of the theater and the small size of the chamber orchestra.
We would not hesitate to recommend this work on the basis of its dramatic values but we did not come home humming the score. We are quite sure Mr. Lang did not intend for us to do so. From a similarly gruesome work (Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd) we surely did! And that is a work we have seen many times and hope to hear unamplified (!) someday in the future.
This New York premiere is part of the Prototype Festival, now in its fifth year of presenting new indie chamber "opera". By rupturing the boundaries of chamber opera, do we lose the meaning of the word "opera"?
(c) meche kroop