|The Difficulty Of Crossing A Field|
by Willard Manus
CA -- Long Beach Opera, southern California's maverick opera company,
recently further enhanced its reputation with a bold and imaginative production
of THE DIFFICULTY OF CROSSING A FIELD, a new work by composer David Lang
and librettist Mac Wellman. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce's 1888 short story,
the opera tells the story of Mr Williamson (Mark Bringelson), a plantation
owner in the pre-Civil War south who takes a walk in full view of his
family, friends and slaves and disappears from sight, never to be seen
Answers don't come easily in this mysterious and haunting opera. Both Lang and Wellman favor ambiguity and minimalism, leaving it up to the audience to answer the big questions for itself. What does come through quite clearly, though, is the
sinister nature of the antebellum south, with its inbred racism, its feudalistic power structure and warped human values.
Director/production designer Andreas Mitisek (LBO's artistic director) created a perfectly skewed setting for the opera by placing the audience on stage, looking out at the deep, dark space of the auditorium. The action took place in an atmospheric setting of smokiness and alienation, with the Lyris String Quartet (conducted by Benjamin Makio) playing off in the distance and the singers widely separated from each other, occasionally riding up and down on elevators. Mrs Williamson (the powerful Suzan Hanson) sat high up on a ladder, a long skirt draped around her. Her distraught, slightly mad daughter (a dynamic Valerie Vinzant) lay far away on a mattress, singing mostly to herself.
The plantation's slaves, led by the actor Eric B. Anthony as Boy Sam (the "house Negro") and an ensemble of eight singers (the field workers), don't lament Mr Williamson's disappearance, the way the white folks do, merely see it as the result of a familiar psychic event, an act of voodoo or witchcraft.
Lang's score matches the elliptical style of the text: one phrase doesn't necessarily lead to another; voices and instruments trail off, suddenly repeat, only to break off again. The opera probes the mystery of life and death in a challenging and provocative way, managing at the same time to be deeply felt and moving.
For details on LBO's upcoming season go to lbopera.org or call 562-321-5934.