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The Difficulty of Crossing a Field
Eric Valliere

In San Francisco, the Kronos Quartet and American Conservatory Theater premiere a one-act opera by Bang on a Can's David Lang.

Julia Migenes as Mrs. Williamson (Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theater)
Lang: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field

Libretto: Mac Wellman

Julia Migenes (mezzo-soprano) - Mrs. Williamson
Lianne Marie Dobbs (soprano) - the Williamson Girl
Jacob Ming-Trent (tenor) - Boy Sam
Anika Noni Rose (alto) - Virginia Creeper
Marco Barricelli (actor) - Mr. Williamson / Presiding Magistrate

American Conservatory Theater
Carey Perloff (artistic director)

Michelle E. Jordan with (left to right) Frederick Matthews, Pamela Dillard, Fred Winthrop and David Ryan Smith (Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theater)Kronos Quartet
     David Harrington (violin)
     John Sherba (violin)
     Hank Dutt (viola)
     Jennifer Culp (cello)
Peter Maleitzke (music director)

Friday 22 March 2002
Theater Artaud, San Francisco

David Lang's new one-act opera, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, is based on an 1893 story of the same name by Ambrose Bierce. This enigmatic tale — part poem, part newspaper article, part court transcript, and all in less than 500 words — is a marvelous allegorical mystery that describes the way various characters perceive the disappearance one afternoon of a local slave-owner, Mr. Williamson. Librettist Mac Wellman (an experimental playwright known for dense and abstruse wordplay in his own works) has an ear for Bierce's terse rhythms and sly repetitions, and he builds entire scenes from single sentences. Lang exploits those repetitions in his music to create an eerily hypnotic atmosphere filled with tension and foreboding.

To call Lang's music "minimalism" would be only half right. While it is certainly repetitive and makes use of only a very few motives, each of those motives changes slightly each time it recurs. It's as if the characters are examining the riddle of Mr. Williamson's disappearance from all sides, always going in circles and continually ending up empty and confused. The music twists and turns around itself along with the text, as when Mrs. Williamson sings:

Wonder what I am. Moon, moon, moon, I am naturally under the circumstances a full moon. And the true wonder is — wonder what I am doing way up here. Alone with the wonder of not knowing .
I wonder what has become of what?"

Unlike true minimalism, Lang' music does move forward and it does arrive — even if the arrival is enigmatic, as when the Presiding Magistrate reminds us that "it is not the purpose of this narrative to answer that question." But the coherence of this music depends as much on clear structure and harmonic organization as on repetition. Lang has devised a small collection of sonic fingerprints whose harmonies somehow evoke pre-Civil War photographs, and he's linked them together to clarify relationships and illuminate characters' inner turmoil.

Marco Berricelli, Lianne Marie Dobbs and Julia Migenes (Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theater)In seven distinct but continuous scenes, Lang and Wellman show us the aftereffects of Mr. Williamson's disappearance on the people around him: each character considers his/her own confusions in turn, tracing the details of the event from a personal perspective. In Bierce's words, their disoriented actions are "the outward and visible sign[s] of an inward fear." This fear, represented by a man who walks into a field in Selma, Alabama one afternoon in 1854 and is never seen again, was really about the impending disappearance of an entire way of life in the Antebellum South. For her characterization of Mrs. Williamson, Julia Migenes has wisely chosen to display a strength that has lost its direction, her rich mezzo in striking contrast to the helpless confusion on her face. When she sings, "I have never seen nor heard of Mr. Williamson since. Nor of Mrs. Williamson," the loss of her identity is deeply felt and touchingly conveyed. As the Williamson Girl, Lianne Marie Dobbs is neither a "Broadway belter" nor an opera singer, but rather a pleasing hybrid combining the naturalistic ease of one with the clarity and technique of the other, and she had the charisma to make her character seem by turns mischievous and charming. Also notable was Jacob Ming-Trent as Boy Sam, whose robust tenor belied the aching sadness in his eyes.

Julia Migenes (top) with Jacob Ming-Trent, Anika Noni Rose and Michelle E. Jordan (Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theater)The able members of the Kronos Quartet understood their role as supporters of the drama, but stepped forward dramatically when called for. Alternately lilting with Lang's gently breezy writing and dancing along with his quirky rhythms, they played with a simplicity and easy precision indispensable to this production. The minimal scenery by Kate Edmunds included a set of metal bleachers on casters and a blindingly white plank that tapered to a point at the back of the stage. The cool versatility and extreme angles of these items exploited the concept of the "vanishing point" to excellent effect, making the stage seem larger than it was and implying a physical depth that matched that of the music and the brilliant story on which it is based.

andante Corp. March 2002. All rights reserved.
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