REVIEW: Magdalene

Magdalene at Prototype Festival

by Gregory Moomjy

Despite all the chronological milestones that were recently achieved, the new year, a new decade, 2020 marks one important milestone in American history which should not go unrecognized. A century ago, in 1920 Congress ratified the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Appropriately the classical music world is marking this momentous anniversary in several ways. The New York Philharmonic, for example, will present Project 19, a series of concerts featuring a total of 19 newly commissioned works by female composers. The Prototype Festival on the other hand will debut Magdalene.

This collective piece consists of the musical setting of 14 poems by Marie Howe and each are composed by a different woman. The poems theme is the journey of Mary Magdalene and how her story is reflected through all women. However, the opera is more than just a collection of poetry set to music. It tells the story of a woman as she deals with the end of a relationship.

The opera attempts to find the transcendent in the mundane. This is a central theme of Howe’s work. To that end, a central characteristic of the production is the idea of reflection. This can be seen either in the use of reflective materials in the set or the use of a singer and a dancer to represent different sides of the same character. A key element of the operas compositional palette is the use of prerecorded breathes and sighs. In fact, the work begins with a sharp intake of breath which according to an interview with the show’s creators in the Playbill, this symbolizes the mouth, the face and the voice “we [all] share with her.” The piece depicts the journey of a woman, M., as she heals herself after a bad relationship involving sexual abuse and leaving a daughter behind. Collectively, the musical settings of these 14 poems use a variety of techniques including crescendos, glissando, spoken text, full-throated singing and Sprechstimme.

This final technique was used to great effect in the movement entitled Before the Beginning by Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir. M. was in a very dark place and the Sprechstimme, which refers to a combination of speech and song, allowed the text and her pain to speak for themselves. However, these composers were quite capable of writing a good old-fashioned aria when needed. How the Story Started, by Sheena Birrittella, almost sounded like a piece of art-song inspired by Gounod’s Ava Maria.

Certain pieces were rhythmic and angular, including one of the movements when M. goes into detail about her past sexual experiences, occasionally providing jagged undertones. As M. Danielle Birrittella possessed a pure lyric soprano. For this work she was twinned by dancer Ariana Daub. Not only did the inclusion of a dancer incorporate another artform into the storytelling, but it was extremely refreshing to see Danielle Birrittella share the choreography as well. Here, the choreography was definitely experimental and called for certain positions, such as crouching on a table that seemed difficult to sing in. This is not a criticism, but rather an accolade. It is rare to see an opera singer dance, outside of The Merry Widow, and all those Silver Age waltzes belong in a totally different category than the choreography for this production.

The set consisted of a pool of water situated in front of a screen for projections. Occasionally, the projections helped to highlight certain aspects of the drama, whether it be the vibrations caused by breathing or ripples in the ocean while M. remembered a sexual encounter on the beach. However, the pool of water brought M.’s need for purification after her breakup to a new level. Not only was the majority of the action staged in the pool, but at one point, the dancer took off her red gown and proceeded to wash it in the water.

Before the performance started, I couldn’t help overhearing a bit of pre-opera chatter. A woman, looking through the Playbill, turned to her friend and said, ‘where is the singer? Isn’t this an opera?’ I couldn’t help thinking that if she was hoping for a more traditional work like at The Met, then she would be in for quite a surprise. It is true that Magdalene lacks many of the trappings we associate with opera – no large orchestra, no huge cast, no opulent production – but what we are left with is an intimate probing look at the human psyche. The Prototype Festival and the 14 composers involved in this production can applaud themselves for writing a work that is definitely operatic, although it might blur the lines of what we think of as opera. I look forward to seeing what these talented women do in the future.

Photo Credit: Hana Sooyeon Kim

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