Going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s galleries after closing hours is akin to walking into a darkling dream. I’ve done so only once before, to hear The Crossing perform David Lang’s little match girl passion and other works before the Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche in the Medieval Sculpture Hall.
This time, I would hear the Gotham Chamber Opera perform two short operas: Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the premiere of Lembit Beecher’s I Have No Stories to Tell You. While each opera tells a tale of war, Monteverdi’s work “is about the act of war and battle” set during the First Crusade, and Beecher’s, whose protagonist is a contemporary photojournalist home after assignment in the Middle East, “is about the after-effects of war, the difficulty of coming home.”
About two years ago, Limor Tomer, the Met’s General Manager of Concerts and Lectures, invited Gotham Chamber Opera to “[s]ee if there’s any space — other than the auditorium — that inspires you to do an opera.” Neal Goren, Gotham’s Artistic Director and Conductor, wrote that, upon visiting the Arms and Armor court, he “was struck by the idea that Monteverdi’s Combattimento—a 20-minute mini-opera about a battle between armored knights—would be right at home there.” Gotham commissioned Beecher to compose a companion work. For his one-act opera, Beecher chose the Medieval Sculpture Hall, “not so much because of the pieces in it but because of its mood . . . coming here, especially at night, it’s much more meditative.”
Museum staff ushered the audience down the museum’s long corridors. On the way, we passed a man in modern soldier’s camouflage standing in a glass case, a harbinger of Beecher’s opera yet to come. We moved back in time to a period when the armor arrayed in the Arms and Armor Court held sway. We stood around a circle of fabricated dirt on which two soldiers would soon spar. We were now, somehow, not simply audience, but part of the action, living spectators to a battle that took place centuries before we were born. Two narrators, Abigail Fischer and Samuel Levine, circled the two singer-warriors as they fought. The exquisitely modest instrumentation included two Baroque violins, a Baroque viola, cello, and oboe, and a harpsichord and lute-like theorbo.
We watched as Clorinda died. In battle, she was Tancredi’s adversary, but also, though unrecognized in her armor, his lover. We saw her submit to him at death, converting from her Muslim faith to Christianity as an act of forgiveness and of love. Whether her choice was wise or not, it seemed best to let go of judgment. It was, after all, a fiction, and a long time ago.
From the last image of Tancredi holding the dying Clorinda, we walked toward the Medieval Sculpture Hall, the familiar corridor made strange by an undertow of apprehension revealed in sound. The sound, composed by Beecher, was electronic, “derived from recordings of the period instruments playing various extended techniques and effects.” I am a confessed skeptic when it comes to deployment of electronics to create musical effects, but my resistance was soon overcome. By sound alone, Beecher carried us from the distant past into the present, along an unrelieved, yet subtle, line of tension. While we might have left behind the dying Clorinda, there would be no respite.
We settled on benches on either side of a long, rust-colored ramp. Lighting threw off sharp-edged shadows from the Spanish choir screen, ordinarily an object of benign beauty in the Hall. Levine, now Noah and a modern soldier, appeared on the ramp. Beth Clayton, who had been Clorinda, was now Sorrel; Craig Verm, her Tancredi, was now Daniel. Accompanied by a chorus of three memories (Sarah Tucker, Rachel Calloway, and Fischer), Clayton and Verm depicted, with gripping eloquence, Sorrel’s unnamed distress and Daniel’s poignant probing of Sorrel’s nightly inability to sleep—an aftershock of war in which Noah was to play an essential part.
One of Beecher’s great gifts is his mastery of understatement, evinced here, among other things, in moments of unaccompanied chorus and the oboe’s winding line to achieve exactly the effect the narrative required and no more. Matched by Hannah Moscovitch’s libretto, Beecher’s music limned the rising tension between Sorrel and Daniel with a sure hand. It’s rare for a libretto and music to work this well together to infuse the dailiness of ordinary language with such power. In a production that was elegantly spare, this excellent ensemble of musicians and singers made palpable the half-submerged, indeterminate landscape of human hearts and minds.
Postscript: I wish to extend my thanks to Lembit Beecher for making it possible for me to attend a performance of this program. I don’t ordinarily accept “comp” tickets, but in this case I did jump at the chance. What I witnessed was the artistic alchemy of bringing a performance to a pre-existing “set” that I don’t think can be replicated by a set created for the traditional opera stage. I do hope that the production, and particularly Beecher’s opera, can be made available, by HD, DVD, or other means, to a wider audience at some point.
An interview with Lembit Beecher about his opera may be found here. More information on the Gotham Chamber Opera production, cast, and creative team may be found here and here. Wonderfully atmospheric photographs by Damon Winter of the operas in rehearsal may be found here.
Lembit Beecher talks with New Music Box about music, including excerpts of recent works
Lembit Beecher’s String Quartet, These Memories May Be True, First Movement
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Credits: The quotations are from the sources linked in the text. The photographs are as credited in the photograph captions and may also be found on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as follows: Medieval Sculpture Hall, Arms and Armor Court, and Choir Screen.