'The Difficulty of Crossing a Field': Opera Review

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field Production Still - P 2014
Keith Ian Polakoff

The Difficulty of Crossing a Field Production Still - P 2014

A superior recent opera, suffused with imponderable mystery, receives an extraordinary production.

Famed cynic Ambrose Bierce's slavery-era mystery, turned into an opera, is performed in Long Beach.

Famed cynic Ambrose Bierce (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Devil’s Dictionary) published his superficially forthright yet substantively dodgy short story The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, in 1888, ostensibly as a pretend journalistic account in Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Set in 1854, on a slave plantation near Selma, Ala., it recounts how a planter named Williamson (Mark Bringelson) suddenly seemingly disappears without a trace in front of witnesses, most of whom, being colored (or in the case of his distraught wife, played by Suzan Hanson, now dismissed as deranged), are deemed incompetent to testify.

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Out of these bluntly wrought 750 words, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang (The Little Match Girl Passion) and three-time Obie-winning playwright Mac Wellman (who earlier had penned an effective play, Bitter Bierce: Or the Friction We Call Grief) have embroidered a powerful chamber piece for a string quartet (The Lyris Quartet, rapidly becoming an indispensible local asset) and 13 voices. Despite being created for the renowned Kronos Quartet in 2002 and originally featuring Julia Migenes and Anika Noni Rose, this haunting and copiously evocative unsolvable puzzle certainly ranks among the major operatic works created thus far this century, yet remains unrecorded.

Long Beach Opera artistic director Andreas Mitisek directed and designed this transcendently visionary production first in 2011, ingeniously placing the audience on the Terrace Theater stage while putting the singers and string quartet in the massive auditorium itself, a shrewd reversal of perspective that lends itself most supply to a host of sonic and spatial inspirations. Returning again this season, it certainly ranks among the most important operatic events of the season. Mitisek teases out the paradoxical strands of Wellman’s determinedly indecipherable thesis and physically projects its complexities through light, costume, movement and, above all, dexterously deployed music and song.

Although the opera consciously draws on suspect, Rashomon-like conflicting versions of events, it is ultimately less concerned with its most stressed theme, the unknowability of truth, than with the rather more disturbing subtext of the inscrutability of corporeal existence. Lang, who here writes in a relatively orthodox contemporary style that remains dogged by the annoying sobriquet of “minimalism,” both sets the words and provides ostinato counterpoint to Wellman’s elusively allusive text. The great strength of the piece is the perpetual balance of weight between music and libretto. Though unquestionably an opera, it is also no less a drama with music. The counterpoint and tension between the slippery verbalized meanings and the insistent driving figures creates a particular beauty that endows an intractably despairing conception with the redemptive power of art.

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Mitisek’s staging adds immeasurably to the dimension of the experience by complementing the implacable ambiguities with startlingly original manipulations of space and sound. The acoustics from the balcony and orchestra sections to the stage are extraordinarily precise and clear, and amplification, usually anathema to opera, has been selectively employed to achieve such subtle effects that it makes the mic use customary for big musicals seem irretrievably vulgar. Similarly, Mitisek uses the vast area at his disposal not merely for fashioning attractively abstract groupings, but also to spatially sculp and therefore vary our apprehension of the voices, so that the experience is one of aural third-dimensionality, our hearing orchestrated as vigorously as the theatrical action. The disturbing climactic effect of ourselves witnessing Williamson dematerializing into the darkness may be one of the scariest experiences in any operatic show.

Familiar LBO singers largely are reprising their roles, and the impression is that everyone has dug deeper into expressive suggestiveness. Stalwart Hanson, a stunning image in black, enveloped in a dress that extends many yards down from her high perch to indicate that she has taken refuge on the roof of the house, makes a poignant figure of distraught incomprehension. Bringelson, that rare operatic talent equally endowed with acting ability, effortlessly embodies a self-satisfied patriarchal figure doomed to a spectral destiny. As his daughter, Valerie Vinzant, new to LBO but groomed by LA Opera, displays lovely timbre and enigmatic presence with economic gestures. 

Bierce detested slavery (and, for that matter, humanity) and had been seriously wounded serving during the Civil War. The dynamics of that “peculiar institution” underpin every moment of the narrative, informing its otherwise otherworldly preoccupations with a palpable sense of urgent injustice. And, of course, everyone cannot help be mindful that 50 years after its abolition, with World War I already commenced, Bierce himself, so preoccupied with inexplicable disappearances, would vanish into never-solved legend in the Yucatan during the Mexican Revolution, immortally remembered perhaps as much for that unaccountable leap into the void than his innovative literary achievements. 

Venue: Long Beach Opera at Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center (through June 29)
Cast: Suzan Hanson, Mark Bringelson, Eric B. Anthony, Valerie Vinzant, Robin T. Buck, Karole Foreman, Lindsay Patterson, Michael Paul Smith, Saundra Hall Hill, Jennifer Lindsay, Matthew Lofton, Marcus Paige, Alex Perkins
Composer: David Lang
Libretto: Mac Wellman, based on the story by Ambrose Bierce
Stage Director & Production Designer: Andreas Mitisek
Conductor & Chorus Master: Kristof Van Grysperre
Light Designer: Dan Weingarten
Score performed by Lyris Quartet (Alyssa Park, Shalini Vijayan, Caroline Buckman, Timothy Loo)