David Lang’s recent vocal music has been an exercise in extreme austerity. the loser, premiered last year at BAM, saw Rod Gilfry standing nearly motionless on a platform high above an almost entirely empty opera house—empty on purpose, not as a result of the poor ticket sales of contemporary opera—narrating a story in concert black, the score using oblique musical gestures to tell a story with a meaning so cloaked in deadpan ironies as to be totally ambiguous.
anatomy theater, receiving its New York premiere Saturday night at this year’s Prototype Festival, is a conceptual exercise at the opposite end of the spectrum, in which nothing absolutely nothing is left to the imagination. As the audience watches, a woman (mezzo Peabody Southwell) confesses to murder, and is then hanged to death, stripped naked, and dissected. The libretto, by Mark Dion and the composer, makes the show’s satire of misogynist Enlightenment moralizing about as subtle as a naked woman with her heart cut out. Our interlocutor, Joshua Crouch (Marc Kidusch), kept winking—figuratively speaking—at the audience to implicate us in the morbid goings-on.
Come to think of it, he may have winked literally, too. His performance was Frank N. Furter–level camp.
That’s not such a bad thing. The whole cast gave scenery-chewing performances, some of them delightful. Southwell left blood on the stage in more ways than one; bass-baritone Robert Osborne, as the pompous vivisectionist Baron Peel, brought a strong comic stage presence; Kazakh rock singer Timur, as his assistant, gave vocal and dramatic performances that seemed rough around the edges in all the most charming ways.
Bob McGrath’s production withheld as little as the piece and its performers crammed with realistic period details even before the start of the show—in keeping with the 18th-century notion of execution as spectacle, the audience was offered beer and sausages before the murderess was paraded into the black box theater to be hanged—and to be honest, it was a bit too much. It made me think of the time we went to see a joust at Medieval Times for my cousin’s birthday; it made me wonder if this is what one of those spooky Manhattan theme restaurants looks like on the inside.
Probably because his name had just come up in conversation with a friend, I kept wondering throughout the show what a Robert Wilson production of this piece would look like, and I couldn’t help but think that his aesthetic would have offered a much more effective route into the material—much less obvious, much more bitter.
On the other hand, it was a pleasant surprise to see Lang working in such a populist vein. With the clever music and the solid prose of the libretto, it was that rarest thing—a genuinely highbrow guilty pleasure—as if Michael Nyman and Peter Greenaway had gotten back together to remake The Phantom of the Opera.
Lang’s no Lloyd Webber, that’s for sure, and his vocal writing followed very much on his recent strategy of quick, simple, almost chant-like text setting, but here his harmonies came to cadences as satisfying as anything on rock radio. His instrumental writing had truly delicious moments, and he could have asked for no better champions than his onstage band, the virtuosi of International Contemporary Ensemble, under the baton of Christopher Rountree. What’s the orchestral equivalent of “luxury casting”? Because that’s what they were—truly stellar.
Also worthy of note: Bill Morrison’s outstanding video design, which kept the audience’s eyes occupied during the often visually static stage presentation, and which heightened the opera’s more visually successful moments without distracting from them.
This is not my favorite vocal work by David Lang. I was far more moved by the loser, his little match girl passion, and his song cycle death speaks. But I applaud the attempt to marry the often perverse conceptual integrity of his aesthetic vision with a new, but no less perverse, perverse eagerness to entertain.
Photo by James Daniel.