Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sing a song of Sartre

Christina English and Aliana de la Guardia in No Exit.  

You have to give Guerilla Opera some serious props.  A production like their recent version of Andy Vores' No Exit (which closed last weekend) evinced a level of artistry and ambition that's rare on the cultural scene.  An intellectual classic, a talented local composer, an imaginative designer, a clutch of local vocal stars - this chamber production definitely qualified as an event, and only added to Guerilla's reputation as the 800-pound gorilla on our operatic fringe.

I was in the end less taken with No Exit than I wanted to be, however - for subtle reasons. I'm a fan of composer Vores - I adored his song cycle Goback Goback - but I didn't feel much sympathy between his voice and that of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Huis Clos (the French title, roughly "[Behind] Closed Doors"), which portrays a damned trio of souls (Inez, Estelle, and Garcin) doomed to torment each other forever, became a cultural touchstone of the twentieth century. Vores is an expert at teasing tonal feeling from the strictures of modernism - so he did conjure a potent sense of imprisoning, Twilight-Zone claustrophobia (and from quite limited means  - sax, strings, and rapping percussion).  And he also knows how to paint a narrative picture; the moment in which Inez serves as Estelle's "mirror," for instance, was intriguingly charged.  But despite these gripping effects, Sartre's argument somehow went missing.

For of course No Exit is as much a treatise as it is a play: it calmly and coldly lays out the existential principle that (again from the French) "Hell is others," not "Hell is other people" (as the first English translation had it - too bad the phrase stuck!).  The point is that for Sartre, the loss of freedom amounts to damnation - but true freedom demands a special kind of courage, the kind the characters of No Exit don't have.  Thus they are locked in an endless, frustrating cycle of defining themselves through the eyes of each other (indeed, at one point the door to their cell swings open - but they cannot bring themselves to escape their prison!).

This pivotal theme was all but lost, however, as Vores' writing sometimes fought the clear articulation of the text. And though he drew his libretto directly from Sarte, the composer didn't seem to translate its dramatic arc into musical terms; the initial moments of togetherness for this trio should be marked almost by relief, for instance (damnation doesn't look so bad at first), but Vores hardly modulated his tone or attack. And it didn't help that director Nathan Troup had grouped the characters in a kind of frieze onstage from the get-go, which robbed Sartre's slow reveal of any and all surprise. (Troup had better ideas when it came to the later blocking, however, and his use of a door on wheels, which circled Julia Noulin-Mérat's simple but effective set, was sometimes inspired.)

What's more, in the pivotal role of Garcin, tenor Jonas Budris struggled to convey much in the way of sketchy moral complexity; he just looks too innocent for the part.  He sounded fine, however, as did the women, Christina English (Inez) and Aliana de la Guardia (Estelle). These two came closer to the dramatic mark as well; English maintained an appropriately pained, judgmental hauteur, and de la Guardia dominated most of her scenes with a needy, spoiled energy.  Jonathan Nussman meanwhile made an amusingly un-blinking valet, and the musical ensemble was consistently on point.  Indeed, everyone managed an acceptable balance given the tight quarters of Boston Conservatory's Zack Box theatre (which amusingly enough, despite the title of this piece, seems to sport half a dozen exits). If not quite everything came together existentially this time around, there was still enough talent (and ambition) on display here to make me hope I might see Guerilla Opera on a more prominent stage sometime soon.

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