Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Angels, wings sold separately

Eric Whitacre's Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, whose concert version received its New York premiere tonight at Carnegie Hall (presented by DCINY), is a cannily crafted mash-up. Mix together quasi-Biblical fantasy narrative, electronic beats, martial-arts dueling, cinematic choral writing, solidly written musical-theater numbers for an ensemble of seven soloists, and, yes, some derivative dialogue, and you might get something like what we saw tonight. It's the closest I've ever come to seeing a video-game soundtrack staged live. And thus, I found the experience fun but not very emotional. The world depicted is sort of like Lord of the Flies, if they'd had more organized leaders in the group. The heroine of the show, Exstasis, played by Whitacre's wife, Hila Plitmann, seeks to break free from the order imposed by Logos and find the wings that were plucked from the children years earlier when their parents locked them inside a fortress to protect them from the darkness outside and prevent them from flying away. The lyrics are imbued with themes of flight vs. strength, freedom vs. authority, of being alone, and keeping things together, and they are lyrical. It wasn't hard to imagine visual representations of many of the scenes. (I understand the more fully staged productions of this work have included Japanese-style anime.) Sadly, too much of the spoken dialogue is the kind you've heard so many times before in cheaply written cartoons and subpar action movies. That said, there was a charm and humor to many of the simple lines uttered by bass-baritone Rodolfo Nieto in the character of Gravitas. Overall, the soundscape Whitacre creates helps to make you forget about the shortcomings; the 400+ member chorus on stage tonight added to the epic feeling the show seeks to create.

This one-off concert performance elicited two standing ovations from an audience filled by many who knew the choristers, and the musical motif introduced by "What If" was catchy enough to inspire some whistling on the way out. The work did run for several weeks as a fully staged musical at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena in the summer of 2007, and won accolades from Variety for pulling off "stunning effects" that transcended the 99-seat house. Tonight's performance was less than 90 minutes without intermission, while that production ran two and a half hours, which leaves me wondering what was cut. I can see this piece finding an audience if it were to mount another long run, and it definitely deserves respect for its craftsmanship, even if I was left a little earthbound by the experience.

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