Review: A spy opera remains enigmatic and urgent

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One cannot help but feel sympathy for the protagonist of Robert Ashley’s opera “eL / Aficionado” when she says: “The meaning of the stage is impossible to describe, if one seeks the meaning in the ordinary meaning.

It’s an ever-present sentiment when it comes to Ashley’s idiosyncratic and innovative works, atmospheric puzzles that push everyday spoken language to its extremes by lengthening it and emphasizing its contours – uplifting the ordinary to something, well, opera.

A forward-thinking who worked closely with a recurring set of collaborators to achieve his vision – which typically involved a deceptively simple harmonic foundation under deceptively simple vocal technique – his work is difficult to revive, especially after his death in 2014.

But in recent years his operas have started to be passed down to a new generation, thanks to the invaluable efforts of Mimi Johnson, his widow, and Tom Hamilton, a longtime colleague. The latest revival – of “eL / Aficionado,” from the early 1990s – opened Thursday at Roulette in Brooklyn; he joins the other presentations since his death by offering a testimony of the lasting vitality of the work. (A new “eL / Aficionado” recording has also been released on Johnson’s label, Lovely Music.)

Seemingly a spy thriller told through the fragmented biography of an agent known only as Agent, “eL / Aficionado” is the second installment of the “Now Eleanor’s Idea” tetralogy. But it is in itself a subtle evocation of 20th century politics and Cold War paranoia. Like much of Ashley’s work, however, it defies simple description, with Dada-like digressions and occasional cosmic twists.

In the most explicit departure from the opera’s initial broadcast and recording, the Agent, a role written for baritone Thomas Buckner, is in this recast recast as a mezzo-soprano. Kayleigh Butcher, a contemporary music veteran who debuts with Ashley, performs the role with technical confidence and impressive performance depth.

As an agent, she – a pronoun change that now spans across the libretto – tells about her career to a trio of interrogators (all of whom wear suits and sunglasses, with one, the most former member of the group, seated apart and raised on a platform behind the stage). Butcher performs what comes closest to traditional singing, full vocal and rich in vibrato – albeit unpretentious, never rising to true greatness but nonetheless creating tension through the language: a stressed syllable or a single one. letter deployed for dramatic effect.

During the 72 minutes of the opera, the interrogation becomes less and less reliable. It could be real; this may not be the case. There may be clues to the minimalist surreal ensemble – by David Moodey, based on Jacqueline Humbert’s drawings from 1994 – which consists only of the officer’s and interrogators’ desks, as well as two Ionic columns. and an independent window whose curtains blow gently and mysteriously. There are also suggestions in the Dreams and Analysis booklet, and the slippery nature of memory. Nothing, it seems, is certain.

Agent’s story moves with a seductive and hypnotic momentum – at 72 beats per minute, to be exact, a common rhythm in Ashley’s music. The electronic score (conceived and mixed live by Hamilton, the musical director of the production) may seem a bit dated, its dreamy synths consistent with the era of “Twin Peaks” or “The X-Files”. But consider how Ashley’s influence, long omnipresent in the work of artists like Laurie Anderson, reaches operas today, such as “Sun & Sea”, which, with a similar soundscape, won the award. first prize at the Venice Biennale and is currently sold out on tour. .

And like “Sun & Sea”, a disarming and relaxed collection of dispatches from a world in climate crisis, “eL / Aficionado” operates on different registers. Personal announcements, recited throughout, are peppered with comedy; the cast meets in chorus for manic real estate ads. These asides can mean everything, or nothing at all.

The staff, with their thrifty writing, are by nature poetic, and rise to the opera in the rhythmic and lyrical discourse of the young interrogators. Like one of them, Bonnie Lander enjoys the percussion of “Passion for Piero, Palladio, Puccini, pasta”; the other, Paul Pinto, in turn obtains the jerky phrasing of “Successful. Super smart. Sensual. Sensitive. Hug. Affectionate.”

The Senior Interrogator (Brian McCorkle) also blurs the line between speaking and singing, extending the sentences and, later, preempting the agent’s lines with identical lines, whispered as if given to him. It provides a preamble for each scene, starting with “My Brother Called”. (“He’s not my brother in the ordinary sense,” the agent explains. “It’s a word we use in the department. It means someone you can count on.”) Bizarre and amazing – things that the agent must take to his grave.

For patient listeners, there are revelations. These ads, it turns out, are code. “The person described as ‘wanted’ is the same person in a different code,” we are told. “I think it’s kind of a confirmation, both for the listener – whoever it is – and for the speaker. Double check against memory.

But it is possible that this code was just one more test for the Agent, who, disillusioned, left “the department” at some point before the interrogation. “Most of what happened doesn’t make sense to me,” she admits in the penultimate scene.

Tired and suspicious, she has long given up on searching for meaning and suggests interrogators to do the same. This is what the ever-present uncertainty does to the mind – a life never knowing what a test is and what an assignment is, what code is and what simply language is.

This deeply unstable feeling may have been rampant during the Cold War. But he never really left us. Confusion to the point of exasperated resignation, as we have seen, can be used to influence elections. It can turn a public health crisis into a deadly mess. With “eL / Aficionado,” Ashley has achieved what opera – or any art, for that matter – is most vital: urgent and, for better or for worse, timeless.

eL / Aficionado

Until Saturday in Roulette, Brooklyn; roulette.org.


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