Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip Glass / David Henry Hwang - The Sound of a Voice. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Mass. 18 June 2003.

Philip Glass is often accused of repeating himself. But his numerous projects -- especially his music theatre ones -- are remarkably varied in terms of both dramatic intent and expressive affect. Each sets up its own distinct terms, and each succeeds or fails according to how well he's worked out or left open its inherent tensions. Despite its origins as a pair of 1983 Japan-set one-acters by David Henry Hwang, Glass' latest music theatre project turns out to be something of a hybrid. He doesn't approach it as a well-made play, but one which has psychological undercurrents its four obsessive characters -- two each in The Sound Of A Voice, and House Of The Sleeping Beauties (here re-named "Hotel Of Dreams") -- can only hint at. Glass achieves this end by making subtle and very evocative use of an orchestra of four, who play flute, bamboo flute, piccolo; pipa; cello; and a large and highly varied battery of percussion which includes both Western and non-Western instruments, like the tar, which is a circular framed drum found in the Arab world, and the goblet-shaped dumbeck, also found in that part of the world. This is a mini orchestra, and far smaller than the ones Monteverdi used in his operas, which get their expressive power from pinpoint solos and subtle mixtures, as Glass does here.

Glass's instrumentation locates the story both ethnically and psychologically. His writing for pipa a Chinese fretted lute with silk strings used for two millennia -- played here by its most famous exponent in the West, Wu Man, conjures up exotic distances and scary intimacies. His writing for three winds -- Suasan Gall -- adds yearning and nostalgia to the mix, while that for cello -- Rebecca Patterson here -- is mostly used for rhythmic support and harmonic color, while the percussion section, skillfully deployed by Robert Schulz, does both. Glass' orchestration also functions as a kind of window into the characters -- the loneliness of the unnamed woman in the first part -- soprano Suzan Hanson -- who lives in a remote forest and may be a witch -- and the strained elegance, hauteur really, of the madame of the brothel in the second -- mezzo Janice Felty. The wandering samurai in Sound -- bass-baritone Herbert Perry -- tends to get more aggressive music -- while that for the visiting elderly novelist Yamamoto -- Perry's twin brother, baritone Eugene -- is quite citified.

Glass also gives each of the two halves -- both are about fifty minutes long -- a specific yet complementary character. The first is in nine compact scenes, while the second has four, and you could say that Sound focusses primarily on rhythmic variations, and Hotel on melodic ones. But the kicker here is Hwang's text, which tends to be flat, even neutral, and was obviously a challenge for Glass, who decided to make the vocal lines as conversational as possible, but also obviously sung. (His work in his Cocteau opera, La Belle Et La Bete (1994), and his opera with Hwang, The Voyage (1992) have prepped him for this). This makes for a certain monotony, except when he gets to set longer, more excited lines. His singers managed their parts with aplomb, though Hanson tended to over sing the strong but mysterious character she played. Her acting, however, could not be faulted, nor can her definite and very strong stage presence. The Perry brothers, though sometimes given less intrinsically interesting music, fared better. Felty did wonders within the carefully calibrated yet highly dramatic range of her part. Glass ended her role in Hotel with a stunning vocalese -- she sings it over the writer's collapsed, expiring body --  which expressed all the pain and sorrow her character had been covering up. His dramatic instincts were in high gear here, with fascinating and highly nuanced sounds emerging from the pit band directed with spot on clarity and urgency by Alan Johnson.ART's new artistic director, Robert Woodruff had the good sense to intrude as little as possible on these Japanese-inflected tales. He was aided and abetted here by frequent Glass collaborator, Robert Israel, who did Satyagraha (1980), and the Metropolitan Opera's The Voyage (revised, revived 1996), with him. Israel chose a slightly upturned Japanese paper lantern seen mid stage left, for part one, and angled it diagonally -- the steps to the brothel were in it -- in part two, to indicate that we weren't seeing something baldly realistic. Lighting designer Beverly Emmons, who's also a Glass-Wilson veteran, worked out equally apposite lighting schemes for both -- muted beiges, whites, celadons and greys in the first, and a mostly very clinical -- and sometimes metallic -- off white -- in the second. She also achieved at least two coups de theatre in Sound -- the suddenly extinguished light as Hanson touches Perry's bare belly -- very erotic -- and her suicide by hanging -- she's dressed in red -- within the lantern, as the lights reveal this, and the music starkly stops. This is an unusual and provocative evening in the theatre by an artist who continues to evolve in unexpected ways. The production moves to Chicago's non-prosecenium Court Theatre this fall (

Michael McDonagh
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