Los Angeles Opera Review: VAN GOGH & TELL-TALE HEART (Long Beach Opera)

Post image for Los Angeles Opera Review: VAN GOGH & TELL-TALE HEART (Long Beach Opera)

by Barnaby Hughes on May 15, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the life of artist Vincent Van Gogh provide rich, if unlikely material for opera. Although there is little romance to speak of in either subject, there is plenty of conflict. It is the conflict of madness, of inner turmoil told in the first person. In the case of Van Gogh, you have the artist’s letters to his brother Theo. In Poe, you have a killer’s confessional monologue.

Although the source material is rich, how do you turn each into something more than a one-man show? Chiefly you do it by bringing minor background characters to the fore and giving them a voice. In addition to the murderer, “The Tell-Tale Heart” includes a victim, neighbors who hear a shriek and two policemen. Van Gogh’s life is fleshed out by the addition of the prostitute with whom he briefly lived and a sort of Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."narrator or parallel Van Gogh character. Add to each story some dissonant music and you have the makings of a contemporary, avant-garde opera.

The Tell-Tale Heart, designed as a one-act opera, lasts about 35 minutes. It is the fourth opera composed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer of The Police. Originally performed at Covent Garden in 2011, The Tell-Tale Heart fulfilled Copeland’s desire to bring the literature of his homeland (he is American) to London, his adopted home for more than two decades. Now, two years later, Copeland’s opera makes its U.S. debut at Long Beach Opera (LBO) paired with Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh. The latter, strictly speaking, is not an opera, but a 55-minute song cycle. This has not prevented LBO’s artistic director Andreas Mitisek from staging it for the first time, however.

While Mitisek might not have been constrained by previous productions of Van Gogh, he brings his own unique vision to The Tell-Tale Heart as well. His primary contribution is the addition of an actor (Mark Bringelson) to the cast of singers. In Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."each opera, Bringelson doubles the part of either the artist or the murderer, who is also played by a singer. By having two men playing the same role on stage at the same time, Mitisek gives physical expression to the inner turmoil within the mind of each protagonist. With Van Gogh, Mitisek’s innovation works quite well, since he is basically staging two stories simultaneously. There is the actor Van Gogh sitting in his room in the hours leading up to his suicide as well as a soprano (Ashley Knight), tenor (John Matthew Myers) and bass (Jason Switzer) who collectively are also Van Gogh. They sing passages from Van Gogh’s letters and act them out when appropriate.

With The Tell-Tale Heart, however, Mitisek’s doubling of characters becomes rather confusing. You have an actual murderer running around stabbing people as well as someone who confesses to be the murderer. What happens when the two come face to face as they do at the end? That’s why it is all rather confusing! No wonder the murderer’s repeated refrain is “Don’t call me that!” In other words, don’t call me mad.

Mitisek’s innovations comes into sharp relief when the LBO’s production is compared with that of the Royal Opera House (ROH), available on YouTube. ROH’s production is what you might call traditional or realistic, opting for period costumes and such. Not content with presenting Poe’s short story (or Copeland’s opera) straightforwardly, LBO changes the setting to a seedy apartment building in LA, Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."alters many of the details and adds extra elements. For example, in Poe’s story, the murderer smothers his victim under the bed and chops his body to pieces, whereas LBO shows a knife-wielding murderer (Bringelson) who buries the body whole under the floorboards and kills his neighbors and the police. Instead of stealing the victim’s gold, the murderer (Robin Buck) takes his stash of cocaine. Moreover, the murderer’s neighbors are played by two slutty-looking females (Knight and Danielle Bond) in tiny shorts and tank tops; one even wears fishnet stockings and stripper heels. All this leads to the impression that LBO is presenting The Tell-Tale Heart not as a serious tale of murder and madness, but as a slasher opera, a black comedy, even a farce.

Those who like dissonant, minimalist music might really enjoy Van Gogh and The Tell-Tale Heart. The score of each is written primarily for a few stringed instruments and as many percussion. Much of the singing, especially in Van Gogh, is rather chant-like with long lines of repeated notes and scant melisma. In The Tell-Tale Heart, perhaps as much as half of the dialogue is not sung, but spoken in Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."rhymed cadences. In general, the music is not easy on the ears. Moreover, it is rather unmemorable due to the lack of sustained, recurring melodies.

Mitisek’s staging of The Tell-Tale Heart and Van Gogh, notwithstanding the criticism already voiced, is fresh, effective and brilliant. He opts for a minimal set that complements the music. It consists of a pair of two-story structures reached by a ladder and bridged by a catwalk. Each structure has pull-down screens on which images and video can be projected, such as Van Gogh’s paintings or close-ups of the murderer’s eye (although shouldn’t it be the victim’s vulture eye?).

Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."With this new production of Stewart Copeland’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Michael Gordon’s Van Gogh, Long Beach Opera cements its reputation as a forward-thinking opera company that is not afraid to take risks on difficult materials. By giving The Tell-Tale Heart its US premiere and Van Gogh its first ever staging, LBO both extends the operatic repertoire and brings cutting-edge compositions to new audiences. While neither opera can be considered an unqualified success, together they prove that opera is far from dead, although it is mad!

Barnaby hughes' Stage and Cinema review of Long Beach Opera's "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Van Gogh."

photos by Keith Ian Polakoff

Van Gogh / Tell-Tale Heart
Long Beach Opera
Bixby Knolls Expo Arts Center, 4321 Atlantic Ave.
scheduled to end on May 19, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.longbeachopera.org/

Comments on this entry are closed.