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One of the great pleasures of visiting the city of Charleston is walking the historic streets that crisscross in an orderly grid throughout the town. While stopping to look at a store window on Meeting Street we overheard a man say to his wife, “who is that guy we keep seeing all over the place?” Even though I did know who “that guy” was, I had a similar sense of exasperation from constantly being bombarded by the punim of Philip Glass plastered all over the city. For the first time in the history of the festival, the official poster and program cover was a portrayal of a real person. Up until this year the public had to endure creative abstract designs and colorful representations of music, theatre and the joie de vivre of summer in one of the great cities of the world. This year we had the black and white depiction of this celebrated American composer – minus ca. 15 years from actual age. This was all done to publicize and extol the almost world premiere of Glass' “Book of Longing,” a work that can be described as a combination of oratorio, cabaret, Broadway and even cello concerto.
The very first performance took place in Toronto just days before the second performance at Spoleto on June 6th, 2007, which we attended. This work is based on the poetry and images of Leonard Cohen, the dour Canadian songwriter, poet, and artist perhaps best known for his song “Suzanne” and the exceptional version by Judy Collins. This is quite the odd couple as Glass' music is characterized by an inner energy and forward moving dynamic while Cohen’s works can generously be described as in a constant state of stasis, very low pulse rate, and poetry that often recedes to the level of what it was like to be 16, stoned and saying things like “far out, I could smell and see the music.” One such example from Cohen’s “Book of Longing” is the epic “You Go Your Way":
You go your way
I’ll go your way too (sic)
The 3 performances of “Book of Longing” were held at College of Charleston’s Sotille Theatre – a lovely 1920s building with the most generous leg room of any venue I have ever visited. It was quite an attractive set consisting of 22 charcoal drawings representing each of the 22 poems that were set to Glass' driving music. Glass himself was on keyboards along with two other keyboard/synthesizer players, plus violin, cello, bass, oboe/English horn and all-purpose Andrew Sterman playing clarinet, flute, piccolo and saxophones. An attractive passport-size libretto book was available so one could follow the poetry. Basically, one or some combination of the four singers came out and in a somewhat perplexing attitude of perpetual defiance sang these poems. There was a welcome respite after every fourth poem or so for a solo instrumental interlude. The very attractive lighting changes also greatly enhanced the evening’s pace. All of the musicians were superb, with cellist Wendy Sutter seeming to be the featured player. Violinist Tim Fain, who was a featured soloist last year with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, was also an excellent presence.
My sequence of impressions from this evening proceeded in this manner: This is really interesting stuff – beautifully written vocal ensembles and exciting instrumental backgrounds. Great string writing, unique orchestrations featuring that unmistakable “Glass” sound. I really like this.
– 30 minutes later: Didn’t he do this already?
– 55 minutes later: This is getting quite repetitive (and I don’t mean the compositional style, but outright repeating the same exact thing).
– 85 minutes later: Enough! Please stop.
– 95 minutes after start: It’s over. Why are all these people standing, cheering and whooping?
Perhaps the apparent prohibition on intermissions at Spoleto had some effect on my steadily withering interest? I don’t think so. All music of all genres and eras has some aspect of repetition, but part of the composer’s job is to balance this with what there is to say and the time it takes to say it. What was most disappointing about “Book of Longing” was that it has some truly superb writing and the execution was spirited and in many moments inspirational. Instead of remembering that and what could have been a memorable 40 minute work, it wore you down till you could swear you were being toyed with. Regardless of the terms of the commission for the work, an artist needs to know when to say when.
The idea of a perfect world, whether called Utopia or Shangri-La — or even a romantic memory of earlier times that probably weren’t quite as good as we’d like to think — has fascinated writers, playwrights, and librettists as long as people have put their thoughts on paper. Even comic books got into the act as Superman would sometime encounter Bizarro World – a place where everything was backward. We have just that scenario with the American premiere of L’ile De Merlin, Ou Le Monde Renverse (Merlin’s Island, or the World Turned Upside-Down).
The one-act comic opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck was first performed in Vienna in 1758 but did not make it to the New World until May 26, 2007, in Charleston. This is a fantasy about two Parisian young men who are in a shipwreck and awake on an unknown island. Sounds interesting enough, and the normal expectation would be perhaps a Harry Potter-type set or at least some exotic locale with period costumes. However, arriving at the Dock Street Theater, the audience was left to stare at a brightly-lit stage adorned with only two large hideous looking green chairs with a thrift-shop coffee table in front of them. This incongruity was nothing compared to what was to come: Voltaire, meet the cast of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Scapon and Pierrot, the two shipwrecked dudes, stumbled onto the stage and, even though they were singing in French, proceeded to portray their parts as the archetypal airhead stoners, circa 1985. Trust me – this is a “you had to be there” situation in order to appreciate the genius of the concept, staging, and acting. What is even more remarkable is that Eugene Brancoveanu, playing Scapin with one of the purest and most powerful baritone voices I have ever heard, is from Romania! Somehow he was able to portray this American-style slacker with uncanny accuracy and brilliant comic timing. His buddy, sung by Keith Phares, was equally adept at portraying this ingenious creation.
The action proceeds with the two love interests, Argentine and Diamantine, literally gliding in on what looks like a white treadmill. They – Amanda Squitieri and Monica Yunus – are a combination of Stepford Wives and cheerleaders as they proceed to tell the boys about the island and its various codes of living, among which are: artists are the most respected and make the most money, and wealthy people share their money with the poor. An Austin Powers-type character comes and goes as a sort of philosopher king engaging in some of the most bizarre and funny scenes you will ever see. Along the way we also meet Hippocratine, a female doctor who cures all illness with physical love. This is theater/opera of the absurd at its best, although I concede that written description is woefully inadequate.
OK, but what about the music? This is a delightful score on the cusp of Baroque sensibilities and the nascent Classical style. Members of the Ginn Resorts Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra gave an absolutely exhilarating performance and almost seemed to be joining in on the brilliantly conceived adaptation. Conducting was Harry Bicket, soon to assume the post of Artistic Director of The English Concert.
This production was quite an enormous gamble but, like many things in life, success sometimes comes from taking big chances. With lesser talent and execution this could have easily succumbed to that scene in “The Producers” where the entire audience stares dumbfounded with gaping mouths after watching “Springtime for Hitler.” It is a rare experience where from start to finish you simply marvel at the creative forces that could come up with such a concept. In this form, even with subtitles, I predict that Merlin would make a big Broadway hit. If not, I hope they were filming these performances and will someday release a DVD. This alone was worth the trip to Charleston and was indeed the best of all possible worlds.