ROTATION performed its final Off Broadway tryout in BlackBox Theatre on Washington Square on Sunday, August 9. This multimedia opera by John Gilbert was premiered in 1969 and was included in Stewart Kranz's epic 1971 book Science and Technology in the Arts. The work is decidedly contemporary in tone, eclectic, but also distinctive in achieving a personal style in Gilbert's libretto as well as his music. Besides the convincing and expressive musical performance, perhaps the most distinctive element is the extraordinary production directed by Clare Hammoor and choreographed by Lisa Naugle, with media created and mounted by installation artist Diarmid Flately, including special images by Evelyn Walker.
ROTATION features an extraordinary cast of five singers and two dancers. According to his Manifesto written in 1968, one of Gilbert's goals for this work was to achieve independent theaters of text, music, action, media, and dance which interact in a dynamic fluctuating context. In his program notes, Gilbert notes that the setting is something like Greenwich Village in a distant or timeless future. As one of the characters, Julia, observes, "This is a very strange place."
The work begins with a quiet opening in which the dancers create the space that is quiet and contemplative or comic and dazzling, a magical but ordinary setting that seems to be waiting for something. The Critic, sung convincingly by baritone Suchan Kim, lays the groundwork for what is to follow by sharing with the audience that he knows everything and he will guide them with his keenly analytic mind.
As the Critic exits, Merculian, played by veteran opera performer and song stylist, Ulrich Hartung introduces himself to the audience as Merculian the Merchant selling his "odds, and ends." Hartung possesses a strong classic presence, and he communicates a wisdom always couched in a sense of humor that he shares with the audience.
Lost and seeming to wander into the space is Julia, a runaway who first is at odds with Merculian, but accepts him as merely an old man with a cart of junk. Played by Julie Song, Julia is an innocent who searches for some meaning for her life by discarding her past. Ms. Song has a very clear voice that is sometimes quite intimate, but also often projected a commanding and strong resonance.
With commotion and screams of "Merculian, what have you done with it!" renowned opera diva Oksana Krovytska, erupts upon the stage as Cassandra, the Witch, and Merculian's companion and collaborator. Ms. Krovytska's voice is rich and vibrant. Although she usually plays the more dramatic diva roles, her experience and insight fashions a comic role that could become classic. The collaboration of Hartung and Krovytska create Merculian and Cassandra as a quintessential paradigm, vintage and primal. At times, Hartung achieves a Hans Sachs grandeur, while Krovytska creates the realm of a witch with compassion, humor, and understanding. They perform some remarkable duet passages and imbue the setting with a sense of mystery and discovery.
Christopher Sanfilippo, tenor, suddenly interrupts the mystique of the moment as he struggles with the Critic who has stolen one of Brian's poems, and begins to read it mechanically. Brian grabs the poem from the Critic who sneers, "Can You Do Better?" Deliberately reminiscent of the scene in Wager's Die Meistersinger when Walther sings the prize song, Brian sings perhaps what might be regarded as the only full-length aria in this chamber opera. Sanfilippo's passionate delivery reveals a voice with rich texture that includes elements of contemporary musical theatre. His sense of pace and shaping the climax was impressive. Sanfilippo revealed strong acting background in manifesting a deep sense of humor while in the midst of extremely dramatic moments. His comedic work helped reinforce Hartung's tragicomic eloquence.
In general, the musical scenes, ensembles, solos are truncated and interwoven in an intensely intimate tapestry of interaction with dancers, and media directly engaged in the action or sometimes commenting, or entering and leaving in contrapuntal fashion. Every character has distinct moments, but the work is rich with miniature duos, trios, quartets, double duo's laced throughout the work.
Flatley's media is abstract and painterly, but often with a stunning presence of a "universe uninvolved with us." Evelyn Walker's added images are evocative. Flately has created a multiscreen texture requiring precise image projection and timing. Into the abstractions, Flately captures the action unfolding onstage and projects it to different screens in the theatre, an extraordinary technical effect.
Hammoor's direction is deft and pragmatic, creating moments for characters to grow into the action and blocking. His setting is functional and comedic, allowing ample space for the media while maintaining a careful balance with the physical presence of objects and set pieces. An added touch is The Young Boy played by Nathan who mysteriously moves in and out of the fantasy.
Naugle's choreography is evocative, and perhaps the most critical and difficult of the separate theaters acting independently. Dance is the one constant that never changes in terms of presence and requires continual attention to details of consonance and dissonance. Theoretically, this presence can interact with the actors and action, and with more time they might have achieved greater cohesion. The dancers, Tal Etedgi and Jacqueline Shannon, weave a tapestry of mystery and coherence, as they establish their identity as the gatekeepers.
There are several highlights worth mentioning: a masquerade scene led by Cassandra and Merculian to seduce and persuade the hapless young couple ending with the explosion of a perpetual motion machine, and a stunning climax to the opera in which the characters sing the quintet "We Require the Masks." In this moment this disparate group of characters bond into an ensemble powerful, eloquent, and memorable.
The star of this opera is the music. Musical Director and Pianist Stella Chiashan Cheng led an inspired ensemble of Zack Hicks (fl/cl), Jordi Nus (vln), and Jiafan Shi (vc). The original score included analog tape cues which have vanished. Synthesist and Audio Engineer, Tate Gregor recreated the tape cues in consultation with the composer. The instrumental score was arranged by John Russell Gilbert, assisted by Sean Shiwon Kim and the participating instrumentalists.
Stella Cheng's musical direction was rich and insightful and extremely responsive to the many changes in tempo, dynamics, and emotional range. Given the context and limits of this Off Broadway trial run, the result was a rich and powerful musical event.
ROTATION explores the meaning of life with humor and skepticism, but also with passion and verve. It is highly compressed with all the elements of grand opera on an intimate scale. The work is also about energy and recycling, and the adventure of discovering who we are and who we might become.
... George Grisham