The American Modern Opera Company began life this week with a series of presentations and a residency at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre. Three performances culminated the residency—all of which were unique and energetic, giving a bracing preview of the company’s promise.
Oberon was packed for Saturday evening’s set of duos, Cage Match. Packed in every way. Full of energy, alive with excitement, brimming with anticipation.
The concept was hokey—various pairs of artists squaring off in a series of duels—as were introductory comments (and dancing, and phony fisticuffs) by hosts Or Schraiber and Bobbi Jene Smith. But the music was real, intense, and brilliantly performed.
Matt Aucoin and Conor Hanick (two pianos) opened the contest with Aucoin’s “Finery Forge,” a minimalist centered, driving work taking off from a home chord of G-sharp minor.
The work stayed tonal all the way, sounding like early Philip Glass. There seemed to be no improvisations, and Aucoin mainly took the changes, with Hanick playing one ostinato after another. Just as it seemed ready to end in an alien sound world, one last, almost ironic chord brought it back home.
Violinists Miranda Cuckson and Kier GoGwilt ran together short works by Franco Donatoni, Bartok and then Telemann, without a break. They acted out a duel, with lighting bringing tragically deep shadows as they stood face-to-face onstage. With a flourish, they tossed their scores to the floor when they turned pages.
So much for the theatrics. The playing was outstanding, and the music—all brief movements, the Donatoni veering from tonality to atonality, the Bartok spiky and precise in its ideas—enveloping.
Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and choreographer/dancer Zack Winokur realized a scene from Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” together—a duet between Poppea and Nero. Both artists played both parts, weaving through the gorgeous score without giving any real clues as to who played whom. (Unless you had the score in memory, or your early Italian shines.)
Costanzo is a marvel. He sang sinuously, regardless whether he was standing alone onstage or riding piggyback on Winokur. The dancing was fluid, thoughtful, elegant.
Subtitles or a printed libretto would have helped—the scene culminates Monteverdi’s marvelous opera, and wallows in each character’s narcissism. But enjoying the artists alone with only sight and sound to appreciate their craft was clearly enough.
A raucous reading of John Adams's "Hallelujah Junction" by Aucoin and Hanick closed out the battles.
Sunday afternoon at the Dance Center (this was a repeat of Friday evening’s performance) choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith danced the latest treatment of her ongoing series “A Study in Effort.” Philosophically driven by the notion of effort, she has previously staged this as a one-woman performance.
This iteration has her paired with GoGwilt. It was mesmerizing. Seven separate “efforts”—Missing, Surrender, Lifting, Drawing a Line, Pleasure, Not Knowing, Take Care—were explored with courage by the dancer.
They performed separated on the stage, until the final scene. The work has physicality at its core. She dances nude in several episodes. In one scene, she hauls fifty pound bags of sand—more than a dozen—from one side of the stage to the other, while GoGwilt plays movements from a Bach partita. In another episode, she reaches orgasm lying face down on a sandbag.
All of it with improbable grace, and great strength. In the final scene, she lowers herself to a recline, performing the slowest, most agonizing-to-watch, reverse sit-up imaginable.
Dance at its best: non-narrative (although the closing “effort,” with its strong death and rebirth suggestions—she balanced a small plant or bonsai on her chest—spins an aura of circularity to the episodes); driven by ideas, but not overbearing. She explored, and invited the viewers to explore with her.
Monday evening closed the festival, with bass-baritone Davóne Tines singing a short cycle, “Were You There,” at the Loeb Drama Center. Pianist Michael Schachter accompanied, and arranged the (mostly) traditional songs that made up the program. The staging was conceived by Tines and Winokur, AMOC’s co-artistic director.
Tines’s instrument is unforgettable. He’s a lyric bass-baritone, facile throughout the range, and impressively smooth in transition to his head voice. Every note was a pleasure.
The subject matter: the unrelenting and brutal slayings of blacks by police on our streets. Tines investigated not in song—that was limited to re-worked spirituals, with one new work by Aucoin—but by his acting, and by a catalog reading of names from a notebook. The climax of the theatrics came after Tines’s reading, when he sang “We Shall Overcome” lying on his back on the stage floor.
The set ended curiously. Perhaps it was ironic. Perhaps it was anger, channeled into sarcasm. Perhaps it was meant generously. It was a sing-along.
Tines interpreted “Amazing Grace”—all of Schachter’s arrangements were inventive, thoughtful, and made great use of Tines’s instrument—in a beautiful, personal way, in what seemed to be a fitting conclusion to a driving, focused performance.
But instead of leaving us alone in thought—guilty thought, angry thought, hopeless thought—he invited the audience to sing along. It seemed vastly inappropriate. There was no collegiality established in this performance, and none could possibly be expected.
If it wasn’t an ironic gesture, then this listener missed the point. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com