Happiness does not come quickly. Aristotle claimed that since a swallow does not make spring, neither does a happy day make a person happy. It will take at least a lifetime.
These measures–days, ages, even generations–are put to the test in the pursuit of happiness in two new myth-like works at the Festival de Aix-en-Provence in France: Georges Benjamin and Martin Kremp “Imagine a day like this,” and Philip Venables and Ted Hoffman Gays and Their Friends Between Revolutions.
However, in either case, time does not guarantee that anyone will succeed in reaching this elusive goal.
In “The Picture”—Benjamin and Crimp’s fourth opera, one taut work of refined skill—the goal is to find the embodiment of happiness. The protagonist, a woman whose infant son has died, is told that if she cuts a button off the sleeve of a happy person’s shirt, her child will be brought back to life. She still has until dark, equipped only with a sheet of paper listing who to look for.
Distinctively ambiguous and bizarre, untethered to reality and peppered with the banality of everyday life, Crimp’s script is a return to the aesthetic of his first collaboration with Benjamin, “Into the Little Hill,” a 2006 retelling of the Pied Piper legend. (They went on to pen the well-traveled psychosexual thriller “Written on Skin,” as well as a similar follow-up, “Lessons in Love and Violence.” Crimp is based on the folk tale, Alexander RomanceChristianity and Buddhism to synthesize not unlike Wagner’s appropriation bag approach to mythology.
The woman encounters many archetypal characters in her quest, be it the Little Prince’s interplanetary journey, or Alice in Wonderland. There are a couple of lovers, a former craftsman, composer and collector. In a series of scenes, subtly connected in Benjamin’s scores but acting as separate set pieces, these people are presented happy but crumble at the slightest scrutiny or self-revelation. Only Zabel, who appears to be a mirror image of a woman, has the wisdom to offer her something like contentment and salvation.
In Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma’s live and intimate production at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, each scene unfolds seamlessly from three walls that wrap around the stage. Marie LaRocca’s unobtrusive costumes distinguish the characters, played by a small cast playing multiple roles: soprano Pete Mordal, who was a graceful lyricist as lover and author; the elegant countertenor Cameron Shahbazi as the other lover, who weaves darkly sensual lines, and the composer’s assistant; and baritone John Pransi as craftsman and collector.
Pransi was given some of Benjamin’s most adventurous vocal writing in the piece, and he rises to it with remarkable skill—a smooth passage between the depths of his rich range and weightless falsetto, about three and a half octaves from low B flat to soprano E.
Special care also seems to have been given to soprano Anna Prohaska as Zabel, her sympathetic stage presence nurturing Benjamin’s resolute, humane music, and vice versa. In Zabel’s scene, what is described in the libretto as her garden is played out in video performances by artist Hisham Barrada showing a barren aquarium as it thrives on a surreal, bizarre life that is both wild and dangerous.
As the woman, mezzo-soprano Marianne Kripasa is determined yet haunting, her resolute manner betrayed by tense vibrato or broad angst. Through it Benjamin, who also conducted the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra players in the pit, related his incidental score. Her reading of the sheet is accompanied by a motif of muted trumpets and trombones. Tubular bells, softly embedded in the climax of each scene, suggest the clock is striking, and time is running out.
However, her race against time is ultimately less important than the woman’s encounter with Zabel. It is impossible to say whether it leads to happiness in a day, and it is as ambiguous as Benjamin’s music itself, which in spite of its clean construction is not clearly or representatively resolved.
Also ambivalent is Venables and Hoffmann’s presentation, “faggots and their friends between revolutions” at Pavillon Noir. This musical stage adaptation of Larry Mitchell’s cult classic of the same name from 1977, with illustrations by Ned Asta, recasts queer history in mythological and utopian terms in opposition to the patriarchy, referred to as “men.” (Among the commissioners involved in the work is NYU Skirball in New York, where she will travel next year.) Whereas the ’70s tale ends in uncertainty, Venables and Hoffman take the story further, offering a cautionary tale for assimilation and offering a vision of life after the revolutions that Mitchell said “will swallow us all up.”
A recent collaboration between Venables, composer, and writer-director Hoffmann, is the 2019 opera “Dennis and Katya,” a chamber piece based on the true story of two Russian teens who ran away from home a few years ago, hid in a cubicle and died in a shootout with police. Barely over an hour long, yet seamlessly layered and morally complex, this work was fundamentally about how stories are shaped and told.
how it is conducted; Denise and Katya was set in a theatrical setting, occupied by two singers and four cellists, but also decorated with projections of Venables and Hoffmann’s correspondence, devoid of hierarchy or operatic conventions. It’s a concept that the creators are taking even further in their new show, and it’s an amazing feat of controlled chaos in which a group of 15 people do it all: sing, narrate, dance, and play instruments.
Venables’ score is a delirious stylistic fantasia, with elements of folk and jazz turns of baroque phrases and instrumentation. He exercises a restraint similar to Benjamin’s, and is, evidently, to comic effect, only when he is in his prime: an episode near the beginning narrates the “rituals” of sailing, building towards a climax of “ecstasy” and exchange. for something cliched that can’t be duplicated here, before the music quickly recedes to a piano. Richard Strauss of “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Symphonia Domestica” would be proud.
Throughout the show’s run, no single artist can be easily described, because no single artist has a specific role. This approach to theater making, in which every performer is essential to all, is particularly suited to the spirit of Mitchell’s book and its roots in his time at the gay men’s and lesbians’ Lavender Hill commune of upstate New York.
But some of the performers got a little too bright. The musical direction of Yshani Perinpanayagam, a graceful instrumentalist, ties the group together at crucial moments. Naturally, two narrators stand out: Yandas, the speech-and-dance dynamo, and Kate Greene, who is at once a charismatic, commanding, and all-around comedic presence. Venable’s score is at its most patient as it showcases the vocal beauty of Deba Johnny and Katherine Goforth, but also reveals flashes of the talented Colin Shay (not to mention their talent on the keyboard).
Introducing the performers in this way—a group of performers sharing Mitchell’s tale rather than fleshing it out, because they’re constantly breaking the fourth wall—also helps sidestep some of the book’s dated politics and hippie heyday. Venables and Hoffman treat non-men as a universal concept that applies very broadly to any oppressed person. But the passage warning against assimilation, of “appearing like men,” has a narrower emphasis. Integration is an obvious bourgeois, gay, white luxury. It’s not for nothing that Pete Buttigieg was the first eccentric to stand a chance at the US presidency.
Yet it is this inconsistency, a dramatic wrinkle in an appropriately wrinkled exposition, that lies at the heart of Anomaly as an unfinished project—one is still looking for a Mitchell utopia, if not for some kind of post-liberation happiness. This will take time