IN: Reviews

DreamStreaming From Guerrilla

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Screengrab from Life Dream with Aliana de la Guardia

Guerrilla Opera has embraced online programming this season with a series of “Covid experiments.” As the final event of the Boston New Music Festival, “Dreamwalker, a month-long audio-visual production, combines a group of these experiments in a veritable feast of drama, film, and music.

“Dreamwalker” centers on two videos, Papillon and Ofelia’s Life Dream. In Papillon, Guerrilla’s Co-Artistic Director Aliana de la Guardia engages in clever shadow puppetry to the accompaniment of Finish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Sept Papillons for solo cello. Directed and animated by Deniz Khateri, the video tells the story of a folkloric Cuban refugee. The image of the butterfly fits the narrative well—alongside the biological parallel of the monarch butterfly’s yearly migration north from Central America, the sheer defenselessness of the insect emphasizes the precarious nature of every migrant’s journey. Both music and video end without triumph, perhaps a subtle reminder that migrants’ lives often remain unstable in their new home.

Cellist Stephen Marotto should be commended for his performance of Saariaho’s virtuosic work. Marotto highlights the elusive quality of Saariaho’s writing, a fitting accompaniment to this story about movement and change. Sept Papillons stretches the performer in all directions with a variety of required extended techniques. In particular, the continual string crossing in three of the movements gives the impression of the cellist as a butterfly himself, a further reinforcement of the theme. Marotto plays with finesse and Khateri’s choice that he appear on-screen for much of the video was welcome. Seeing the accompaniment alongside de la Guardia’s acting makes the performance feel both alive and intimate.

California-based composer Carolina Louis Miller originally created Ofelia’s Life Dream as a theatrical piece. Guerrilla’s reconceptualization is acted by de la Guardia and directed by Laine Rettmer. With its eponymous Shakespearean implications, Ofelia’s Life Dream is a psychedelic story of hallucination and self-realization. Miller describes the work as a “feminist rewriting” of the Hamlet character and de la Guardia powerfully invokes sheer madness and horror. Adding to the drama, fantastical, biological elements are successfully superimposed on otherwise mundane, indoor settings by Nouzhou Wang and Andrea Merkx.

Miller’s score intensely underscores the action. She profitably uses an abundance of material, everything from the sitar to found sounds. Dramatic whispering and laughing presented alongside spoken monologues prove especially effective, conjuring images of Ofelia’s inner conflict. And a variety of natural sounds including insects and flowing water similarly stress the power of the natural world.

Screengrab from Life Dream

Themes of change and adaptation unify both presentations. The amalgamation of beguiling butterflies in and haunting organic decay in Ofelia’s Life Dream is a perfect parable for the age of coronavirus, during which nature can simultaneously be a source of needed recreation and innate terror. Other elements imaginatively reference the pandemic as well. All performers wear masks throughout, while de la Guardia creatively utilizes the covering in her acting. For example, a skewed mask demonstrates drunkenness and the dramatic movement of the fabric accentuates her fearful, heavy breathing. Set following a celebration seemingly of Ofelia’s departure from a job, I also found it easy to connect Ofelia’s Life Dream with recent layoffs and furloughs across the country.

De la Guardia referred to “Dreamwalker” as an exhibition, an apt analogy for viewers who can, as if visiting an art gallery, come back for their favorite works over the course of the month. Each week, a new “bonus track” will be added to the assortments on offer, featuring Lilit Hartunian’s performance of Garth Knox’s Violin Spaces and video by Julia Noulin-Mérat. If these pairings are as good as Papillon and Ofelia’s Life Dream, they will be must-sees.

Guerrilla Opera has been inventive and ingenious to design this novel approach to concertgoing and “Dreamwalker” makes a fitting end to this year’s unusually staged Boston New Music Festival.

“Dreamwalker” remains available online until December 13th HERE. A pass for unlimited viewings costs $10.

Gareth Cordery, a first-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University under Walter Frisch, majored in Music and History Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.

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