Opera review: Visionary ‘Field’ Provides Artistry to Savor

“It is not the business of this narrative to answer that question,” a magistrate investigating the disappearance of an antebellum plantation owner tells a witness at one point in David Lang and Mac Wellman’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.

Intriguingly, it is not the business of the 2002 opera-play to answer any questions but to ask them. The audience decides whether to come up with answers or simply marvel at the journey. In the visionary hands of Artistic Director John Hoomes and Nashville Opera the freedom to do both is entertainingly encouraged.

Ambrose Bierce (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) wrote a very short story that inspired the hybrid work. Lang (who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl Passion and has just been named composer of the year by Musical America) fashioned the score to a libretto by Wellman (an Obie Lifetime Achievement Award winner among other honors for such works as Sincerity Forever, Bad Penny and Crowbar), who has often crafted fascinating pieces freed from traditional rules of language and structure.

On the surface there’s a Twilight Zone-ish horror/mystery tale where Mr. Williamson vanishes while walking across an open field outside Selma, Ala., in 1854. His disappearance occurs in full view of family, neighbors and slaves; all have different reactions to the event, and different explanations regarding what happened and why.

The story isn’t chronological, bouncing back and forth between moments that occur before, during and after Williamson’s apparent departure from this life. There’s also the clash between the dying order and hints of the post-slavery world that will soon be born; such elements add more layers to the Field puzzle-box.

The lead performances in this hybrid piece come from a mixture of well-regarded opera singers – mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as Mrs. Williamson, soprano Rebecca Sjöwall as the Williamsons’ daughter and tenor Robert Anthony Mack as the house slave Boy Sam – and two of the region’s top actors. Those actors play two parts each: Brian Russell is Mr. Williamson and a magistrate who holds an inquest about his disappearance, and Eric Pasto-Crosby is Williamson’s neighbor Armour Wren as well as Williamson’s overseer and brother Andrew.

ALIAS Chamber Ensemble provides a quartet – Zeneba Bowers and Alison Gooding on violins, Matt Walker on cello and Chris Farrell on viola – to play Lang’s score conducted by Dean Williamson (the accompaniment by Amy Tate Williams that helped singers and actors prepare for final rehearsals and upcoming performances should be noted as well). My ArtsNash colleague John Pitcher will have more to say about this production’s music on Saturday, so for now let me say their beautiful work reinforces and often spurs the action on the raised platform in Noah Liff Opera Center’s upstairs studio space.

Working on that platform (as well as a step-ladder that allows Rivera’s face to appear above a hanging depiction of the Williamson home) the aforementioned performers give finely-etched performances. Rivera makes her character’s descent into madness palpable, with her real-life pregnancy enhancing the poignancy and tragedy of her plight; Sjöwall’s girl-woman is a somewhat wild creature who seems more in touch with another world; and Mack adroitly acknowledges his character’s caught-in-the-middle existence as he struggles between his loyalties to the Williamsons and his fellow slaves.

Pasto-Crosby makes clear distinctions between the awkward and kindly Wren and the arrogant and cruel Andrew; Russell’s Williamson is a man whose confusion and consternation as his well-ordered life becomes a nightmare is visible on his body and clearly heard in his voice; his magistrate is a person whose by-the-book mind and manner are ill-equipped to handle the mystery that comes before him.

Members of the Nashville Opera Ensemble – including Sonya Sardon as the slave Virginia Creeper, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva as the Old Woman, Bakari King and Brooke Leigh Davis along with Charles E. Charlton, Byron K. Harvey II, Dave Ragland and Dionne Marie Simpson – sing and act their roles so convincingly that you may, among other things, find yourself believing in the voodoo their characters may have used to send Williamson away.

Barry Steele’s lighting is superb; he offers everything from yellowish beams of moonlight to a hellish red as Prince Zandor’s dark magic apparently takes hold. Pam Lisenby’s costumes and Sondra Nottingham’s wigs/make-up nail the pre-Civil War South look. Cara Schneider also deserves kudos for the Williamson house and a horse headdress that moves in and out of various scenes courtesy of Michelle Hinson; credit Made First with the stage construction and Erica Edmondson and 615Design with some first-rate scenic painting.

Yes, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is not a traditional opera; it is instead a multi-discipline work that celebrates the wide spectrum of performing artistry. Does it supply ready answers? No, but that’s really beside the point. Go and see what vision, risk-taking and commitment to excellence can produce.

Performances of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field will be today at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  at the Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights (3622 Redmon St.). Tickets ($35 for Reserved and $50 for Premiere) are available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040 or online at www.nashvilleopera.org. The opera is spoken and sung in English with no projected translations. Composer David Lang is scheduled to attend the opening night performance and post-show discussion. The format for each show includes the 80-minute Lang opera presented in its entirety, a short intermission, followed by an Opera Insights discussion moderated by John Hoomes.

*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).