Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The last couple of weeks have been taken up with the winter production of Intermezzo, The New England Chamber Opera Series, for whom I have designed sets and lights for the last seven years.  We are a lean, enterprising and adventurous company, one that deals only in modern or absolutely contemporary material, in English, with productions conceived and directed in the firm belief that opera is theater rather than a concert in gorgeous costumes.  We own nothing -- no theater or rehearsal space, no offices, no storage space but the basements, attics and storage sheds of the places in which we live.

Fully a third of what we present is new work, commissioned by the company director with funds raised from donors, foundations and benefit concerts.  We rent spaces around the city of Boston based on their suitability to the material being produced, and move in for about a week for technical and dress rehearsals and two performances.  Then we strike the sets and pack up the costumes and quietly disappear until the next time.

Last week, the program was called Boys' Night Out, featuring three baritones in a varied program of all American material.  We opened with Dominick Argento's The Andrée Expedition, a song cycle based on the journal entries and letters written but never sent home by three Arctic explorers who set out to cross the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon in 1897.  Originally written to be sung by one baritone,  we performed it with the composer's blessing with three, each taking the role of one of the men, and expertly staged by our director, Kirsten Cairns.  

Expedition leader Solomon August Andrée, scientist Knut Frankel, and photographer Nils Strindberg set off in the summer of 1897 from northern Sweden (photo above taken moments before the balloon ascended) with a considerable amount of gear but some very faulty assumptions and expectations. 

The balloon sailed northward rapidly for three days (photo taken as the balloon cleared land), moving into fog and drizzle in freezing conditions that deposited a ton or more of ice on the balloon bag.  Ice coating the lines that tethered the bag to the gondola which was repeatedly slammed onto the ice as the balloon tried in vain to rise only to be weighed back down repeatedly.

Eventually the balloon and gondola crashed onto the ice, never to rise again (Photo by Nils Strindberg, from the Corbis/Bettman archive).  The men unloaded three heavy sledges and piled them with as much of their stock of supplies as they could and began the long trek south.

Strindberg documented their journey over sometimes impossibly jumbled ice with this camera (above).  Supplies ran low and they shot polar bears for food.  They managed to find a low, rocky patch of land, White Island, and dragged what was left of their supplies off the ice.  Exhaustion and illness overcame them, particularly as the Arctic winter began and intensified.  Hallucinations set in.   

Nils Strindberg was the first to die, leaving behind a sheaf of letters written to his beloved Anna.  Frankel buried him in the cleft of a rock, under a pile of other rocks, seen above.  Andrée died soon after, babbling incoherently, and Frankel some unknown period of time later. 

Thirty three years later the remains of their last camp were discovered totally by accident.  Their remains and everything that had survived were taken back to Stockholm.  The film in Strindberg's camera was still viable, giving an invaluable picture of their ill-starred voyage.  For some inexplicable reason, their bodies were cremated before any autopsies could be made.  The question of how they died has never been resolved but there are many theories -- parasites from eating raw polar bear meat, suicide by overdosing on opium (of which they had a large supply), vitamin A poisoning from eating bear liver, failure of vital organs due to exhaustion, deprivation and hypothermia.  One researcher, after carefully examining their clothes, stated that they had died of polar bear attacks. 

They received state funerals with high honors (above, the procession from the ship on which they were transported from White Island).

Argento's music is eloquent and specific in characterization of the three very different men: the romantic dreamer Strindberg (exquisitely sung by Sumner Thompson), the idealistic and probably irresponsible Andrée, and the pragmatic observer Frankel.  There's not a trace of self-pity in the material the men left behind and no mawkishness or sentimentality on the deeply human tone of the music.  The performance was heartbreaking and applauded lengthily by an unexpectedly large audience that had (almost ironically) slogged through frigid, icy and snow-clogged streets.

The second half began with an 18 minute monodrama, De Profundis by composer Thomas Oboe Lee, the text based on an excerpted version of Oscar Wilde's despairing letter from Redding Jail to his unfeeling, betraying young lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), intensely sung by John Whittlesey.  The evening ended with a delightful four song cycle put together by David Kravitz about men's clothing called The Suit Suite. 


Good blogger buddy RG (dulce y peligroso) posted the above and I gleefully repost it here.  Among other things it gets right is my long-held belief that if Jesus were to come back tomorrow and visit the US Congress, or the Mormon Tabernacle, St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, or any of the huge Christian mega-churches in the mid west, they'd take one look at him, listen for about 45 seconds -- then hustle him out the door and throw him into the street with warnings not to come back, EVER.  Thanks, Rob!

ALL of these exciting things going on? I the dead of very cold winter? Holy smokes.
I liked the poster too.
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