Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda /I Have No Stories to Tell You

Mar 02, 2014

Wall Street Journal

Heidi Waleson

Combat got a more vivid depiction in Gotham Chamber Opera's double bill, performed last week in two galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This ingenious project paired Claudio Monteverdi's "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda," performed in the Arms and Armor Court, with the world premiere of Lembit Beecher's "I Have No Stories to Tell You," written as a companion piece using the same basic musical forces and played in the Medieval Sculpture Hall.


This was the most successful of Gotham's experiments with performing operas in nontraditional spaces: Both of these brief pieces interacted strongly with the galleries. In the heartrending 20-minute Monteverdi cantata, two enemy warriors battle ferociously. Tancredi fatally wounds Clorinda and realizes, when he removes her helmet, that she is the woman he loves. The real suits of armor, weapons and heraldic banners all around spoke as no stage set could about how fighters become metal-sheathed machines, their humanity concealed and suppressed.


The necessarily small, standing audience surrounded the performers like spectators at a boxing match. Director Robin Guarino and choreographer Bradon McDonald had the two combatants (Beth Clayton and Craig Verm) practically wrestling in slow motion; Gabriel Berry's costumes used fabric to suggest chain mail. The warring pair were physically expressive; tenor Samuel Levine and mezzo Abigail Fischer, sharing the narrator's role and doing the majority of the singing, were equally eloquent, their full-bodied vocal performances accompanied by an excellent small ensemble of baroque instruments, only minimally affected by some extraneous reverberation due to the height of the space.


Mr. Beecher's opera, also about war, had a different kind of power. Sorrel (an intense Ms. Clayton), who has returned from an unspecified modern conflict, has posttraumatic stress disorder, and in the course of 40 minutes we find out why. Hannah Moscovitch's libretto subtly builds suspense; it starts over several times, with the sleepless Sorrel asking her husband (Mr. Verm), "Did I wake you?" but refusing to tell him why she cannot sleep. A tight trio of women, led by the expressive Ms. Fischer, sing her nightmare memories as an ominous vocal haze, and the narrative gradually gathers momentum until the trauma is finally revealed—another soldier (the bright-voiced Mr. Levine, skillfully playing a boy trying to be a man) raped her and was later killed. Mr. Beecher's music for the baroque ensemble made artful use of its skills in articulation, layering pizzicatos on tremolos to create an eerie, almost mechanical sound that added to the sense of late-night unease.


Andromache Chalfant's set, a runway with spectators on either side, made the disturbed, restless Sorrel seem forever trapped. The shadowy gallery, with its Virgin and Child statues and other devotional objects, turned the home front into a place where nightmares hide in corners and war is never in the past.