Friday evening at the Noah Liff Opera Center, and a woman wearing a stylized horse head was walking slowly back and forth along the edge of the stage. It was opening night of Nashville Opera’s production of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field. Just before start time, artistic director John Hoomes joined the peripatetic horse lady onstage, where he promptly uttered the understatement of the week.
“If you’ve come expecting to see Madame Butterfly Part II, you’re in for a surprise,” he said.
No kidding. Composer David Lang’s experimental opera offers few Puccini moments. There are no sopranos nailing high F’s in sumptuous arias, and likewise no divas jumping out of windows to commit suicide – though in “Field” a half-mad mezzo soprano does climb to the roof of her house to sing.
Instead, “Field” provides an evening of innovative music and provocative theater. Lang and his librettist, the experimental playwright Mac Wellman, based the opera on an 1888 short story by Ambrose Bierce. The plot, for what it’s worth, goes something like this. In 1854, an Alabama planter named Williamson walks across an open field and, poof, disappears into thin air. Just before his fateful walk, he remembers “something about those horses” (hence this production’s ubiquitous, strolling horse head). Afterward, Williamson’s wife, daughter, brother, neighbors and slaves struggle to comprehend this strange occurrence.
Wellman and Lang’s setting is thoughtful and imaginative. The episodic libretto is constructed using the so-called “Rashomon effect,” a reference to the Kurosawa film in which events are told from different perspectives and out of chronological order. It’s a neat approach that intensifies the opera’s sense of mystery and ambiguity. The work is also a hybrid. Some sections sound like contemporary opera. Others have the look and feel of a play.
Lang’s music, scored for string quartet and expertly played on Friday night by members of Nashville’s Alias Chamber Ensemble, is appealingly post-minimal. The busy, repetitive stutter of minimalism is heard throughout the score. But Lang also writes memorable melodies for singers and instrumentalists alike. One of the best comes near the end of the opera, when Williamson’s wife sings an anguished a cappella aria about her husband’s disappearance. In a masterstroke of tone painting, Lang eventually weaves in a soulful melody for first violin. The instrumental music serves as a stand-in for the missing man, and it deftly turns a wrenching aria into a heartfelt duet.
A quartet of musicians from the Alias Chamber Ensemble – violinists Zeneba Bowers, Alison Gooding, violist Chris Farrell and cellist Matt Walker – played Lang’s pulsating score with flexibility and sincere feeling. Conductor Dean Williamson led a tight ensemble, matching the vocalists’ phrasing with nuance and sensitivity.
The singing and acting was all first rate. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera sang the lead role of Mrs. Williamson with a honeyed tone and deep emotion – she seemingly expressed every dark feeling: grief, fear, anger, confusion, you name it. Soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, as Williamson’s daughter, performed with a bright tone. Her impressive technique allowed her to shift rapidly from head to chest voice without the slightest hint of stripping gears. Tenor Robert Anthony Mack, as Boy Sam, sang with power and precision.
The production’s two dramatic stage actors – Brian Russell in the dual role of Magistrate/Mr. Williamson and Eric Pasto-Crosby as Armour Wren/Andrew – both gave memorable performances. Russell was at his best expressing the internal conflict and confusion of the Magistrate, a by-the-book fellow who’s having a hard time accepting the reality that some things are just unknowable. Pasto-Crosby, as the overseer Andrew, personified the evil of Southern slavery. This was a man who enjoyed cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
Some of the finest performances on Friday came from the ensemble cast portraying the slaves. Soprano Sonya Sardon (Virginia Creeper) sang with power and, when performing in counterpoint with Boy Sam, sheer luminosity. Jennifer Whitcomb-Olivia (Old Woman) sang her gospel-infused part with immediacy and fearsome intensity. The rest of the ensemble – Brooke Leigh Davis, Charles E. Charlton, Brian K. Harvey II, Bakari King, Dave Ragland and Dionne Marie Simpson – all gave terrific performances.
Hoomes, the artistic director, deserve special mention for his masterful interpretation of this work. He avoids the temptation of highlighting the more avant-garde elements of the opera, which would tend to make this work seem pretentious or worse, campy. His one indulgence is the horse head (not called for in the libretto), which serves to intensify the opera’s sense of mystery. Hoomes’ main focus is on the characters, who reveal their innermost emotions on a bare stage. It makes for an evening of riveting theater that takes an un-sugarcoated look at this nation’s past.
After the performance, Hoomes, the musicians and cast remained at Noah Liff for a question-and-answer session. The artistic director didn’t want people just walking out into the dark after such an intense experience. One man wondered why there were no projected surtitles. “We tried them during rehearsal,” said Hoomes. “We found them to be intrusive in this space.” Another man asked Alias violinist Zeneba Bowers about the difficulty of the music. “It’s very difficult, and I’m mad at David Lang about that,” she said in jest.
The composer was in the audience for Friday’s show and remained for the Q&A. He noted that 19th-century composers like Paganini and Liszt were good at making music sound more difficult and virtuosic than it really was. “My music is the opposite of that,” he said. “It’s often harder than it sounds.” Lang also commiserated with audience members who had trouble following this opera’s non-linear plot. “Mac Wellman intentionally went out of his way to confuse you,” Lang said. “I wrote this darn thing and I don’t know the meaning of everything.” That’s the point, Lang continued. “The simplest things in life often have meanings you’ll never know.”
Performances of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field will be today (Saturday, Nov. 9) at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights (3622 Redmon St.). Saturday’s performance is sold out, so you’ll need to call ahead to see if tickets have become available. Tickets ($35) are available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040 or online at www.nashvilleopera.org.