Switch, a 90-minute theater piece with music, telling a story about a kind of love, premiered Friday evening at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge. John Aylward both authored the words and composed the music. Some 100 spectators filled up two rows on either side of the plain, modern rectangular room. On one side of the performance area sat a trio of instruments, on the other a somewhat large battery of percussion. The story unfolded in the rather narrow, elongated space between.
Rhythmic typing began with Henry at his desk suffering writer’s block. The theater piece would end in the same manner. Henry’s girlfriend, Molly, an aspiring actor, was experiencing a severe audition-phobia. Appearing later on, Anne, a muse, succeeded in getting Henry to open up and write again. At the same time, he fell in love with her. A nonet of young women struck poses and danced minimally as muse manques.
For Aylward’s thoughts on his new work, see BMInt’s article “From Hip to Opera House” here.
Russian-born Mikhail Smigelski, a doctoral degree candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, played Henry. When he asked “Do you vant a dreenk?” we could hear, as we often did throughout, a bit of an accent that, when combined with his deep film-like coated baritone voice, caused a somewhat muddled enunciation.
“Described as “an experimental singer and indie classical music curator,” Amanda DeBoer Bartlett played both Molly and Anne. Her dual role playing was spectacular, pretty much fooling anyone unaware. Her crystal clear delivery projected every word in the acoustically perfect Le Lab.
While Smigelski assumed uptightness, Bartlett exhibited naturalness. Her Molly could get extremely upset; her Anne could be most consoling.
Sightlines left a lot to be desired for those sitting in the second row above the “stage.” At times standing proved to be a solution. Better yet, the clever stage design and direction of Andrea Merx and Laine Rettmer thoughtfully addressed this matter. They divided the performance space into four open areas each keying in on Switch’s themes: a desk with typewriter in one, a mirror in another and so on. Action moved from area to area, thus assuring that some of us could see some of the time.
Aylward’s score called most often upon the two vocalists to speak their lines sometimes in a quasi-Sprechstimme. When they did sing, composer Aylward’s instrumental voice emerged when an ensemble of four performing on flutes, clarinets, cello, and percussion, broke their silences. In contrast to the ongoing, non-stop vocalizations, he left plenty of empty space in the instrumental writing. A good deal of rests between notes as well as parts generated a spaced-out feel. Intermittent intervals of complete silence, some quite long over the 90-minute stretch, further contributed to fleeting commentaries more atmospheric than informative.
Overall, Alward’s self-absorbed reflections of the human condition seemed inadequate as opera libretto.
The Ecce Ensemble conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz cast what brilliance it could on Ayward’s coloristic if unsubstantial writing that relied heavily on so-called extended techniques. Lyricism was absent. If we expect opera to be big, an opera this is not. A love story it is not, unless hinting at a Sartreian Nausea switched with affection could be considered a credible stand-in.
“If he wants to be a writer, he’ll have to let me in,” says the muse, Anne, to the suffering Henry. I wondered if those who attended the premiere of Switch could detect or identify with Aylward’s parallel artistic struggle.
Costumer Rachel Dainer-Best added to the realism and fantasy, more especially the former, inviting the audience to feel present, and a part of this theater piece. Le Laboratoire will do little to meet the needs for a new opera house, not that Switch really belongs in one.
Switch will be presented again February 13, 14, 19, and 20 at 7:00 pm.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of
20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net