At a French Opera Festival, Premieres in Pursuit of Happiness

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Happiness doesn’t come quickly. Aristotle claimed that as one swallow does not make spring, neither does one good day make someone happy. That would take a lifetime, at least.

Those measures — days, lifetimes, even generations — are put to the test in the pursuit of happiness in two new, fablelike works at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France: George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s “Picture a Day Like This,” and Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s “The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions.”

Yet in either case, time doesn’t guarantee anyone’s success in reaching that elusive goal.

In “Picture” — Benjamin and Crimp’s fourth opera, a taut one-act of masterly craft — the aim is to find the embodiment of happiness. The protagonist, a woman whose infant son has died, is told that if she cuts a button from the sleeve of a happy person’s shirt, her child will be brought back to life. She has until nightfall, and is equipped only with a sheet of paper listing whom to seek.

Crimp’s text, characteristically mysterious and strange, both untethered from reality and peppered with the banality of daily life, is something of a return to the aesthetic his first collaboration with Benjamin, “Into the Little Hill,” a 2006 retelling of the Pied Piper legend. (They went on to create the well-traveled psychosexual thriller “Written on Skin,” as well as a similar follow-up, “Lessons in Love and Violence.”) Here, in what makes for a natural double bill with “Little Hill,” Crimp draws from folk tale, the Alexander Romance, Christianity and Buddhism for a synthesis not unlike Wagner’s grab-bag approach to mythology.

The woman encounters several archetypal personalities on her quest, a journey redolent of the Little Prince among the planets, or Alice in Wonderland. There are a pair of lovers, an erstwhile artisan, a composer and a collector. In a series of scenes, subtly linked in Benjamin’s score but operating as discrete set pieces, these people present as happy but crumble at the slightest scrutiny or self-disclosure. Only Zabelle, a seeming mirror image of the woman, has the wisdom to offer her something more like contentment, and salvation.

In Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma’s straightforward, intimate production at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, each scene fluidly emerges from three walls that wrap around the stage. Marie La Rocca’s unintrusive costumes differentiate the characters, who are played by a small cast in multiple roles: the soprano Beate Mordal, nimbly lyrical as a lover and the composer; the elegant countertenor Cameron Shahbazi as the other lover, weaving darkly sensual lines, and the composer’s assistant; and the baritone John Brancy as the artisan and the collector.

Brancy is given some of Benjamin’s most adventurous vocal writing in the piece, and rises to it with impressive skill — seamless passaggio between the richly resonant depths of his range and a weightless, dreamy falsetto, about three and a half octaves from a low B flat to a soprano E.

Special care appears to have been given, as well, to the soprano Anna Prohaska as Zabelle, her sympathetic stage presence feeding Benjamin’s firm yet humane music for her, and vice versa. In Zabelle’s scene, what is described in the libretto as her garden is rendered in video projections by the artist Hicham Berrada that show a barren aquarium as it blooms with surreal, alien life alluringly lush and menacing.

As the woman, the mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa is determined but aching, her resolute manner betrayed by tense vibrato or wide-eyed concern. It’s through her that Benjamin, who also conducted the excellent players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit, ties together his episodic score. Her reading the sheet of paper is accompanied by a motif of muted trumpets and a trombone; tubular bells, quietly embedded in each scene’s climax, suggest a clock striking, and time running out.

Her race against time, however, is less important in the end than the woman’s epiphanic encounter with Zabelle. Whether that leads to happiness is impossible to say in a day, and is as ambiguous as Benjamin’s music itself, which despite its immaculate construction is never obviously representational or tidily resolved.

Ambivalent, too, is Venables and Huffman’s show, “The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions,” at the Pavillon Noir. This music theater adaptation of the cult classic Larry Mitchell book of the same name from 1977, with illustrations by Ned Asta, recasts queer history in mythic, utopian terms in opposition to the patriarchy, referred to as “the Men.” (Among the work’s co-commissioners is NYU Skirball in New York, where it will travel next year.) Whereas the ’70s fable ends with uncertainty, Venables and Huffman take the story even further, introducing a cautionary tale of assimilation and offering a vision for life after the revolutions that Mitchell said “will engulf us all.”

The last collaboration between Venables, a composer, and Huffman, a writer and director, was the 2019 opera “Denis & Katya,” a chamber piece based on the true story of two Russian teenagers who a few years earlier had run away from home, hidden in a cabin and died in a shootout with police. Barely more than an hour long, yet smoothly layered and ethically complex, that work was fundamentally about how stories are formed and told.

And how they are performed; “Denis & Katya” existed in a theatrical space, occupied by two singers and four cellists, but also decorated with projections of Venables and Huffman’s correspondence, devoid of hierarchy or operatic tradition. It’s a concept the creators take even further in their new show, an astonishing feat of controlled chaos in which an ensemble of 15 does it all: sings, narrates, dances, plays instruments.

Venables’s score is a delirious stylistic fantasia, with elements of folk, jazzy turns of phrase and Baroque instrumentation. He exercises a restraint similar to Benjamin’s, and is explicit, to comic effect, only when he is at his most prurient: An episode near the beginning recounts “the ritual” of cruising, building toward a climax of “ecstatic communion” and the exchange of something vulgar that can’t be repeated here, before the music quickly subsides to a piano. The Richard Strauss of “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Symphonia Domestica” would be proud.

Throughout the show, no one artist can be easily described, because no one artist has a defined role. This approach to theater-making, in which each performer is essential to the whole, is particularly suited to the spirit of Mitchell’s book and its roots in his time at the Lavender Hill commune for gay men and lesbians in upstate New York.

But some of the performers are given a little brighter spotlight. The musical direction of Yshani Perinpanayagam, an agile instrumentalist, holds the group together in crucial moments. Two of the narrators naturally stand out: Yandass, a dynamo of speech delivery and dance, and Kit Green, a presence at once charismatic, commanding and thoroughly comedic. Venable’s score is at its most patient showcasing the vocal beauty of Deepa Johnny and Katherine Goforth, but also reveals flashes of Collin Shay’s gifted countertenor (not to mention their talent at a keyboard).

That the performers are presented as such — a group of artists sharing Mitchell’s fable rather than embodying it, as they constantly break the fourth wall — also helps to sidestep some of the book’s dated, peak-hippie politics. Venables and Huffman treat the non-Men other as a universal concept that applies, extremely broadly, to anyone oppressed. But a passage that warns against assimilation, of “looking like the Men,” has a narrower focus. Blending in is a distinctly white, gay, bourgeois luxury; not for nothing was Pete Buttigieg the first openly queer person to stand a chance at the American presidency.

Yet that contradiction, a dramaturgical wrinkle in an appropriately wrinkled show, is at the heart of queerness as an unfinished project — one still in search of, if not Mitchell’s utopia, then some kind of post-liberation happiness. And that will take time.



POST AUTHOR: Joshua Barone

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