Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Four Saints in Three Acts

Yes! I'm finally getting to the point, after moaning about YBCA's ticketing system and making fun of their web site.

In short, I was completely charmed. I liked the opening Luciano Chessa piece perfectly well, especially video artist Kalup Linzy's appearance as a gospel-singing angel. It set the stage dreamily, and the fact is, I think a slightly altered state - certainly a big old suspension of your ground in reality - is a good thing when you're about to see even a shortened version of Four Saints.

I had never heard any of the main event before, so the transition was, to me, seamless, especially given that one section of the Chessa sounded like a riff on Thomson.

I loved the music and loved the surrealist/experimental air of the lyrics. As somebody once said of Oklahoma, "what's the plot? It ain't got." There is some kind of a plot there, at least a hint of an outline of the lives of Sts. Teresa and Ignatius, perhaps as seen by a child or a person in medieval times, only with operating theaters and electric chairs. And all this accompanied by the most naive and direct Americana possible.

Well, it worked for me. The excellent singing went a long way, as did the delightful staging by Brian Staufenbiel and terrific conducting of Nicole Paiement.  Kudos to Eugene Brancoveanu (Ignatius), Heidi Moss (Teresa I), Kristen Choi (Teresa II), John Bischoff (Compere), and Wendy Hillhouse (Commere) for their contributions.

Now, out there in new and old media land, Patrick loved Four Saints and wrote about it at great length; Sf Mike is one of the policemen in the production and clearly adores the opera. Janos Gereben has expressed puzzlement to me and isn't a fan. Joshua Kosman is down on it. Jeff Dunn liked it while seeming to want more musical substance than there is.  (Joshua liked Caliban Dreams, which I totally do not get.) Closer to home, my girlfriend loved it. Me, the next time it's done I want to see the full 1934 version rather than the abbreviated-for-radio version from the 1950s.

Looking at that list, I'm left wondering: do you need some kind of queer sensibility to let go enough for Four Saints to make some kind of sense? And if so, what is that sensibility?


sfmike said...

Some of us, let's face it, are from the Planet Mary, homo and lesbo alike, and yes, it does help to be from that planet to understand this strangeness. But it's not necessary. Take Charles Shere, for instance, who gets Ms. Gertrude completely.

Glad you had a good time.

Daniel Wolf said...

Lisa & Mike,

While I can't claim to come from any planet other than our mundane Earth, I think the capacity for a Baptist composer from Kansas City and a Jewish author from Oakland to make the everyday and banal and a smattering of Spanish Saints into something extraordinary ought to have a universal appeal. But it may require a certain abandonment of gravitas that not every listener (let alone critic) can summon.

What I haven't been able to piece together from the reviews is if any of Maurice Grosser's scenario survived in this production (it did, very much, in the production that the National Theatre of the Deaf did a generation ago.) Visions of the holy spirit and all that, you know...

Lisa Hirsch said...

I know so little about the opera that I can't tell you, but my guess is: no. I think they devised their own scenario. Mike might know; Patrick Vaz would.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

They devised their own scenario, which is a legitimate approach; Grosser's scenario was conceived after the libretto and music were both completed, as a guide to staging it. At the MCANA panel here last June, I spoke to Anthony Tommasini about Thomson and 4 Saints (I had brought in my copy of Tommasini's Thomson bio so he could sign it for me) and he confirmed that Grosser's scenario was never meant to be the one and only possibility (he also confirmed that the shorter version from the 1950s was never meant to be a final revision or an alternative performing edition).

I thought that what Ensemble Parallele came up with was ingenious and worked quite well, contrasting earthly rules with higher saintly perceptions.