KPBS AIRDATE: March 12, 2004
In this age of extravagance and overkill, minimalism can be a blessing. In opera, opulence is usually the operative word. But in the hands of internationally acclaimed director/designer Robert Wilson, less is often more. And theater aficionados know that the plays of Harold Pinter are typically small, airless, nearly claustrophobic affairs. So this week onstage, unbridled is out, unfussy is in.
6th @ Penn Theatre has perfectly paired two short Pinter plays: the enigmatic, 1996 “Ashes to Ashes” and an early 1963 creation, “The Lover.” Both deal with tenuous, troubled marriages. Taken together, with their Pinteresque pauses, menace and hidden meanings, the plays show how an intricate web of betrayals and denials can reduce an insular world to an ashen lie. The less opaque of the two, “The Lover,” concerns the dangerous games some couples play in terms of fantasy and infidelity. “Ashes to Ashes” is a more brutal and chilling piece that alludes to Holocaust-type atrocities in its stark depiction of marital non-communication. Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria are splendid. Under the deft, terrifically-timed direction of Robert May, these two stellar actors capture the unspoken nuances, cool, civil detachment and seething sexuality that underlie both plays. This is haunting theater of the very best kind… unadorned and unsettling.
And that’s what Robert Wilson does with “Madama Butterfly,” one of the most popular and familiar of operas. Puccini’s opus is often lavishly designed and costumed, but at the L.A. Opera, Wilson presents a bare, monochromatic space, with just winding wooden walkways and a Japanese bridge in the distance. The provocative costumes — long, austere, angular suggestions of kimonos or Western suits — are black, white or gray. Color appears only in projections on the white backdrop: subtle tonal shifts that reflect or counteract the onstage action and emotion.
Wilson’s signature stylized movements are here abstracted even further to resemble noh or Kabuki theater; characters seem to float on air, striking ritualized poses. The slowness of the action pulls the focus onto the music and the passion of the story, which seems always to strike familiar notes: the American striding in, taking charge, and then leaving the foreigners bereft. There are three alternating Cio-Cio Sans; the superb-voiced Xiu Wei Sun is a worldwide veteran of the role, and her delicate movement and facial expression are heart-breaking. Her supple soprano is rich with emotion and range. As Pinkerton, tenor Valter Borin seems less comfortable in Wilson’s style; he has a commanding presence, but his moves are less precise and his voice less powerful. Under the baton of Kent Nagano, the orchestra performed with rich lyrical grace.
If you like pomp and ceremony, or straightforward explication, these aren’t the productions for you. But they’re right up your alley if you’re intrigued by a certain level of inspired ambiguity. Artists, like life, don’t always have all the answers.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2004 Patté Productions Inc.