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Shipwrecked on Planet Kitsch

La Didone, The Wooster Group, Redcat Theater, Los Angeles, June 6 through June 21 –

didone51Open on a post industrial-style stage and a lush, restless soundscape of way-distorted noise levels with smooth pulsing undercurrents of Baroque chamber opera. The sensual meets cold steel, curvy bods are clad in nicely shaped silver bodysuits. The overall effect has some charms, but like most things that charm, there is a vacuous center. In the case of La Didone”, a 1641 Baroque opera by Francesco Cavalli, you might argue that the voiding of content began in a palliated retelling of the Dido/Aeneas romance when adapted for Carnival by librettist Giovanni Francesco Busenello. In that opera, the tragic fate of Dido, the beautiful spurned suicide queen, was altered, so that Dido doesn’t kill herself after Aeneas has seduced and abandoned her. Instead she is brought back from the brink by horny King Iarbas –why let a good hot, propertied, babe go to waste when she can be eminently re-cycled? …the raunchy pragmatism of the times had its demands. Changing the end may have been an inane idea, pandering to the tastes of its audience, but not nearly half as ill concieved as marrying the whole opera to a sampling of 20th century space age kitsch: Planet of the Vampires, Terrore nello spazio, 1965 film by Mario Bava. with some additional material from Queen of Outer Space by Edward Bernds.

The Wooster Group and their brilliant impresario, Elizabeth LeCompte, by their own admission, were not eager to take on this project. “On a whim” they accepted the commission, from the Belgian KunstenFESTIVALdesArts, only after being “pestered” and because the budget was ample to hire real musicians. LeCompte’s interest in the nascent musicality of theater voicing was given some wind –“I always direct opera”. And so the group began by playing the movie and singing the opera side by side, then continuing to work and to stage and refine, until the piece took form. Check out this edifying set of interviewswith LeCompte, Chinn and others from the group .

Hear an excerpt from this interview with LeCompte, Shepard and Chinn conducted by Claudia La Rocco

The methodology of the Wooster Group, a long rehearsal process where a performance organically develops through inhabiting the premise, is always a large part of what the work is about. “Possession, being possessed by genre, the opera story getting taken over by the spirit of the movie…became a useful metaphor for the combining of the forms” said veteran Wooster member Scott Shepard. Evidently the pairing of this particular film to this opera was at the suggestion of film buff Dennis Dermody, a true lover and scholar of B Movies. LeCompte had originally been attracted to the notion of pairing the opera with a spaghetti Western, because the dubbing as a form of mask bore an interesting similarity to the use of voice as mask in the form of opera. It was odd to hear her say this, as I’d commented to my husband on the way home from the performance that La Didone would have worked better had it been juxtaposed (assuming you accept juxtaposition as a strategy at all) with a Spaghetti Western. In the genre of the Spaghetti western–in addition to the dubbing which lends a curious artificiality, there is the latent tragedy of the existential lonely drifter which gives a pungence to any romance. In “Terrore…” there is none of that, only the flat stylization of that Trekkie kind of film which the Bava represents: basically a cold war drama dealing with notions of paranoid xenophobia. Opera plus movie, tangentially related by the ideas of long lonely voyages, shipwreck and the alien invasion of love or something, is a playful and anomalous juxtaposition that never really gels into poetry. Absent of a sense of darkness, which always lurks behind the successful art that engages kitsch–you end up with, well, pleasant confusion. You cannot ignore or elide the implications of the signs you throw.

queenofouterspace200px-planet_of_the_vampires

Musically there’s plenty to enjoy with Hai-Ting Chinn’s powerfully expressive contralto and Bruce Odland’s inspired scoring…Chinn’s performance inhabited another world, along with the brilliant rising star turn of hunky hot Andrew Nolen. His falsetto was thrilling, even more so when he dropped it to reveal his native bass/baritone–this guy you expect to be a tenor, or a fashion model or eye candy on a daytime soap–not the charismatic presence he in fact was. Back in the day, (17th century) singing falsetto was a code for virility, sort of like sissy singing in the vernacular of soul music (think The Stylistics). Worked for me, at least with Nolen doing it, though of course it drew giggles from the audience, as the meaning has been long since supplanted (19th century) by comedy. He and Chinn paired with the truly inventive work of Music Director Odland are worth the price of admission. Kate Valk turned in a mesmerizing performance as the cool space woman Sanya, agingly beautiful and Viva-esque. Jennifer Griesbach’s choreography was disciplined and smart.

The current cutting edge theater vernacular–for those projects which have been supported by a substantial amount of institutional funding–ensures that there will be at least a modest amount of video gadgetry and image manipulation, so there is nothing in the Wooster Group production which is groundbreaking. The set design was just okay–leaning to the space age rather than the baroque. I’ve seen real transformations of the space at Redcat and this staging was weirdly claustrophobic and cluttered.

Overall, I suspect this is opera for an art audience who think that opera is hokey and square, so that to blend it with a 60’s kitsch B-film would appear to be cool, cutting edge and clever marketing, but…why?

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