Jan 20, 2020
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A Dance Steals the Show at an Opera Festival

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“Cion” was hardly out of place amid the more characteristic presentations of this Prototype, which closed on Sunday and was produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the arts organization HERE. The festival’s work tends shortish in length, intimate in size, and darkish, ambiguous and poetic in mood. This describes Mr. Maqoma’s work as much as Danielle Birrittella and Zoe Aja Moore’s “Magdalene,” performed at HERE’s home in SoHo.

“Magdalene,” a song cycle delegated among 14 female composers, draws its text from poetry by Marie Howe that explores women’s lives, obliquely, through the virgin-whore archetype of Mary Magdalene. There was a nice tension between cohesion — everyone was composing for string quartet and harp, conducted by Mila Henry — and variety, with some numbers spare, some lush, some poppily alert, some sincerely mild.

I feared, in the first minutes, a tone of turgid solemnity. (“Who had me before I knew I was an I?”) But “Magdalene” grew on me. This was partly because of its inherent diversity of expression, and partly because of its eventual openness to humor, most winningly in a sly setting of “Their Bodies,” an enumeration of the physical and emotional qualities of different penises.

But mostly it was because of Ms. Birrittella, who gave an exposed, intelligent and earnest performance in what was essentially a one-woman show. (Her character, M., had a silent dancer double, the unflinching Ariana Daub, who joined her in moodily traipsing in and around a large, shallow pool at the front of the stage.)

Ms. Birrittella was asked to make an eerily elderly twang at one point, and to rise to grandeur near the end, in a long final monologue with music by Emma O’Halloran. She was persuasive and powerful throughout.

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