Wednesday, April 22, 2009

La Didone


Opera by Francesco Cavalli, with excerpts from Mario Bava's Terrore del spazia. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. St. Ann's Warehouse. (CLOSED)

The Woosters' newest multimedia mash-up--in which an obscure baroque opera is performed more or less straight but spliced with a B-movie sci-fi script--divides critics between the enchanted and the irritated, with a middle rank who find it plenty dazzling but essentially empty. A number of critics hail the Wooster debut of soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, who excels at both the singing and the signification.

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) When it comes to striking sparks from crashing art forms and time zones, nobody beats the Wooster Group at the top of its game. The mind-bending pyrotechnics — visual, aural and intellectual — never stop in “La Didone,” a work that crosses a little-known 17th-century opera (about Dido and Aeneas) with a little-known 1965 movie (about extraterrestrial body snatchers). Timelines double up on themselves in this wondrous production...Divisions between high and low culture are released into the ether, as ornately sung Baroque arias melt into prairie-flat B-movie dialogue. And distinctions between fleshly substance and technological shadow are erased to the point that you’re tempted to pinch yourself. Not to wake up (this is a dream you want to live in for a while), but to make sure your body isn’t some hologram...What makes this production so unusually stimulating (not to mention so entertaining) is its juxtaposition and layering of “La Didone” with the live acting-out of “Terrore Nello Spazio” (released here as “Planet of the Vampires”), a 1965 film about space zombies from the cult director Mario Bava...What this production illustrates, with poignancy as well as wit, is how consistent humankind has been in the myths with which it consoles, scares and diverts itself.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Opera has always been a glorious mutt...You could say that opera, in trying to unify the arts—fashion, music, drama and dance—was multidisciplinary and postmodern before such terms existed. Now the ace hybridizers of the Wooster Group offer a waggish deconstruction of Francesco Cavalli's La Didone (1641), which does the purists no favors...But director Elizabeth LeCompte has triumphed again, creating a synapse-tickling performance vocabulary with her ensemble that links the legend of Dido and Aeneas to a crew of astronauts battling space zombies for control of something called a "meteor rejector." The cast wears clingy silver space suits, but half of them break out into heavenly bel canto song, while the nonsingers speak deadpan wooden dialogue underneath. The result partly mocks opera conventions but also sharply realigns the themes of imperialism and love as an infection. Normally at a Wooster Group show, you marvel over the hypnotic intensity of Kate Valk, the effortlessly wry Scott Shepherd and the athletic gusto of Ari Fliakos. They're all here, still marvelous, but the real star is mezzo-soprano and Wooster newcomer Hai-Ting Chinn...The Group may tweak opera, but this time, a bona fide diva rules them all.

The New Yorker B+
Aesthetically, the two works are galaxies apart, but there’s fun to be had in sussing out the similarities—both find their heroes navigating unfamiliar lands (Carthage, a zombie planet) and dance around the question of free will. Elizabeth LeCompte’s staging is elegant and overstimulating, with a poised performance by Hai-Ting Chinn, as Dido. (Like everyone else, she wears a metallic space suit.) Ultimately, though, the production is more enamored of its own audacity than of either of its source materials, and succeeds primarily as camp.

Village Voice B-
(Tom Sellar) An irreverent tribute to classical form. LeCompte merges Francesco Cavalli's 1641 baroque opera, celebrating Aeneas' love for Dido, with a 1965 Italian sci-fi flick about the spaceship Argos getting stranded on a zombie planet...The narratives dovetail nicely at many points; both sets of characters confront love and fear, loyalty and deception. Opera singers share the stage with the Woosters, and the tales eventually overlap as freely as the lutes and electric guitars do. In the end, the juxtaposition of film and opera is tame by LeCompte's standards; everything lines up symmetrically and harmoniously—too much so. We need the Wooster Group to make trouble, but here, they go completely baroque.

Gothamist C+
(John Del Signore) LeCompte's spectacle feels like an elaborately empty shell, seeking a spirit to animate it. La Didone is more fussy than complex...LeCompte concedes she's sometimes bored with her source material, and her tendency is to work her solipsistic obsessions to the max. When it succeeds, this auteur approach is exhilarating, but when her premise is flawed, the obsession becomes mere fetish. I'm sure she has her elaborate reasons for staging an opera about Dido and Aeneas simultaneously with a glorified Star Trek episode—for starters, the craft that's lost in outer space is essentially the same as a craft lost at sea in antiquity—but whatever the intellectual subtext, the effect is an impersonal, incomprehensible muddle....I know I probably sound like John Simon here, but what's so frustrating is that the very thing that makes The Wooster Group vital after all these years—the company's insanely talented core group of performers: Kate Valk, Scott Shepherd, and Ari Fliakos—is obscured in La Didone behind LeCompte's monomaniacal concept, exacerbated here by an imbalanced sound design that favors the ringer opera singers over the brilliant actors.

Theatermania C-
(Sandy MacDonald) Few aural experiences grate on classically inclined ears like untrained voices attempting opera--except maybe sci-fi sound effects amped to a cochlea-frying rock-concert roar, both of which are on display in La Didone...What's more the pity is that in Hai-Ting Chinn, the Wooster Group has a truly superb Dido, a crack Baroque interpreter who combines delicacy of diction and phrasing with incisive acting. Indeed, she manages to be fiercely stylized and sincerely affecting all at once...Chinn's skill is matched by Andrew Nolen in a panoply of roles, ranging four very secure octaves, from bass to countertenor...As for the Wooster Group members who fill in on small roles and as chorus, let's just say that the Metropolitan Opera won't be calling them any time soon. No doubt all sorts of technical sophistication went into this production -- when the space explorers reach behind video monitors, for instance, their hands' actions are rendered onscreen -- but to what end?

The New York Times A+ 14; Time Out NY A 13; The New Yorker B+ 11; Village Voice B- 9; Gothamist C+ 8; Theatermania C- 6; 61/6=10.17 (B)

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