‘Vincent’ world premiere extraordinary production

April 11, 2011

By Peter Jacobi

On opening night, Friday, the audience, laden with students, erupted in cheers. On Saturday night, with more mature subscribers dominating attendance, there, too, were cheers, slower to start but ultimately just as pronounced.

So, in terms of public reaction, the weekend’s performances of “Vincent,” in a world premiere presentation by IU Opera Theater, must be considered a success. The question that remains is how this intriguing work, a music drama about the painter Vincent Van Gogh, will fare in future mountings if and when separated from the visual values one currently experiences in the Musical Arts Center.

This “Vincent,” though without doubt boasting both a potent musical score by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Bernard Rands and an eloquent libretto by J.D. McClatchy, is an extraordinary production to see. Front, back and sides, on scrim and ever changing scenic panels, one sees projections that create constantly shifting environments, designed to show, as a deeply troubled Van Gogh expresses in a letter to his brother Theo when “Vincent” begins, “This is the world in my mind.”

In flashback, that world is re-created through key scenes, from when the young Vincent, rejecting his father’s insistence to follow him into the ministry, fails at a job in his uncle’s Parisian art gallery, through troubling, tortuous years to his suicide. All the while, Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings flash on and off or linger; they establish sites in which he worked and suffered; they whirl dizzyingly, enlarge themselves, or magically transform, as from a sunflower to the yellow house in Arles where Van Gogh lived briefly with Paul Gauguin. Well-chosen props complete the stage pictures.

Production designer Barry Steele created this mesmerizing world, with the notable assistance of costume designer Linda Pisano. Making virtuoso use of the magic is another Vincent, director Vincent Liotta, who so obviously steeped himself in the lore and lure of Van Gogh and gave his two casts telling lessons in art history as well as operatic theater. He choreographed movement, with some allowances for individuality but distinct notions about how Steele’s environments should be used to best serve this operatic Van Gogh.

Choreography was at work also between stage pictures and music. As one listened to composer Rands’ vivid orchestral interludes, separating scene from scene, the visuals seen kept time with the score, in reinforcement.

The Rands/McClatchy “Vincent,” built heavily from correspondence engaged in by the loving brothers, Vincent and Theo, shapes a loner who desperately didn’t want to be, a man drawn to God but far from averse to the sins of pleasure, an artistic visionary, a dreamer whose life turned into a living nightmare ruled by epilepsy and emotional disintegration.

The music that Rands gave Vincent and the denizens of his world is remarkable and rich in suggestiveness. No, it is not melodic or relaxing. Should that be expected? The dominant atonal qualities underscore the tension of a life in turmoil. But a Protestant chorale comes along when the action calls for it. So, too, does cabaret music. So, too, a Gregorian chant. What’s important is an expressive build that ingeniously echoes every dramatic nuance in an unfolding and disturbing drama.

Rands’ champion is conductor Arthur Fagen. He obviously understood intent and trained the pit musicians, the Philharmonic, to not only technically play the complex score but to do so with needed style and atmospheric power. The singers, too, have benefited from his knowing leadership.

In baritones David Adam Moore and Christopher Burchett, the production has two outstanding Vincents. Hired for their experience in performing new works, they handled a demanding assignment admirably. Their portrayals emerged as believable, sustained, and compellingly intense.

Tenors Jacob Williams and Will Perkins, as Theo, came a long way in matching their stage brother, high notes and all. Bass-baritones Hirotaka Kato and Adam Walton gave lusty life to painter Gauguin.

Remaining roles are shorter but of critical importance, too, and were, on the whole, intelligently cast: among them, Luke Williams and Jason Eck as Vincent’s father; Elizabeth Toy and Kelly Kruse as the prostitute Sien; Kirsta Costin and Laura Boone as a cabaret singer and model; Peter Thoresen and Steven Linville as Toulouse-Lautrec; James Arnold and Christopher Grundy as a benefactor, and Paloma Friedhoff and Jami Leonard as the benefactor’s daughter.

“Vincent,” as opera and production, is quite an achievement.

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