I saw the grand production of Amercan Opera Theatre's Ground last Friday; the Kipling monkey which got to go with me was Pitsy. Here he is, with the backdrop of the pseudo-Gothic spires of the G campus:
I have to admit, his Forest Green fur blended in nicely with the Georgetown landscape...
Other than hearing great things about this production when it debuted last year, I did not know what to expect and it was a big surprise. For this year's edition, in somewhat changed form, nothing but good reviews are coming from all sides - the Post, Michael Lodico at Ionarts, the "Ground is Heavenly" praise from Operatically Inclined CGK. Here's why I liked it so much.
On a very sweet note, Tim Nelson, the head honcho of AOT, opened this production with a short speech and dedication to all these artists who may have been "esthetically very different from" AOT, but who were important and who left us recently- LHL (sniff.... am still in denial about her death), Nilsson, Crespin, Sills and of course Pavarotti. Nice acknowledgment from such Enfants Terribles group like AOT, paying respect to the old guard. People change, opera goes on.
What you could call a plot in Ground is a simple thing. A Him is lonely, and meets Her, and they go through whole life cycle together, singing. And the band plays on.. Part I was at first only pleasant, but the whole thing kicked it into higher gear with Part II.
Since the singers had to carry this through, few words about them. Brian Cummings' voice has improved greatly; at his La Didone's outing as Iarbo, he often seemed unsure if he was really a countertenor, now it's a much smoother vocal ride, with some funny runs, but really nice sound. He still has a particular way of moving on stage; his trademark hops were especially endearing when the couple was at the young age/early stages of courtship. Elizabeth Barber was vocally underpowered at first; she improved as the show went on, but she expressed herself well enough, not just with the vocals. Blending in duets was a mixed business, but in the end- where it mattered- it was really good.
For the mini orchestra, I have nothing but high fives: most importantly, the three players managed to stay focused, crunching out repeating patterns of music.. even had a bit of fun in places- at the movement accompanying the couple's quarrel, the hitherto impeccably Baroque violin suddenly broke out into blue grassy mode.
The staging was sparse but very ingenious- the same silk sheet made for the bed and the baby, the flower vase told stories about my way/your way issues of cohabiting together, the collapsed wall of the little house made a very sad flower patch - and a grave?- but it was just enough to express a lot of things on a budget, and, methinks, without great compromises.
The projected titles also made sense to me, though people sitting behind me found them confusing. The common surtitle scheme in opera houses works by having most if not all the words simply translated, and the Ground's loosely connected words projected on screen may take getting used to. The brochure handed out was certainly made a on a cheap, and with a tipsy editor, but I only opened it at the beginning. In this production the link between the sung text and the story was tenuous anyway, and it made no sense to be rustling pages.
What actually surprised me was how I engaged in the story I became. From the first signs of baby onward, it felt like a connected, coherent and really emotional tale. The ending was perfect.
Pitsy the Monkey got little bored with Part I, but emerged at the break- which was, in a new fashion, accompanied by music and used to change the "scenery" (i.e. move the tealights):
and he absorbed Part II wistfully. Kipling Monkeys are tough to please, and this was a good sign.
And all this wonder from patchwork of music that, other than Monteverdi, I barely knew- Merula is the author of a piece called La Monica, and I like to see my name used for noble musical purposes, but that's all I heard of him so far.
I have high hopes for AOT. I hope staging of madrigals catches on! I would love to see few chosen pieces by Gesualdo presented with some smart stage business. My super favourites in the madrigal field, La Venexiana, got slugged recently for "sameness of mood" at their concert. Inventive stagings like Ground could help with easier digestion of not just madrigals... but I think early Baroque/Renaissance music lends itself beautifully to this treatment.