Monday, May 30, 2016

Little Match Girl: The opera that almost made me stand up and shout

Match Points?

Posted by Chris Haire on Mon, May 30, 2016 at 3:17 PM

click to enlarge JULIA LYNN PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julia Lynn Photography
I'm not sure, but at some point within the first 15 minutes of Little Match Girl, I scribbled in my notebook, "Oh for fuck's sake."

The reason was not the jarring symphony of noise that fell from high above the stage like a monsoon of acid rain, burning ears and laying the seeds for toxic nightmares to come. No, that was all very well done, and frankly rather enjoyable. Led by Spoleto resident conductor John Kennedy and propelled by Helmut Lachenmann's dissonant yet captivating score, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra flawlessly executed the well-crafted cacophony. Meanwhile sopranos Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta handled their bric-a-brack vocal duties with aplomb. All are worthy of praise, and Buck and Kakuta were quite mesmerizing to watch as they wailed, hiccuped, and made strange guttural noises that, in polite society, would have labelled you a cretin at best and a madman at worst.

While some audience members were surely taken back by the music, this wasn't my first time visiting Lachenmann's opera. I had already listened to it several times in the weeks before our little international arts festival, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Like my row-mate Dustin Waters, my ears are well accustomed to chaos, whether it's John Zorn's Naked City, as Dustin mentions, or it's more streamlined pop varieties in the form of Mike Patton's various projects or Serj Tankian's criminally under-appreciated Jazz-Iz Christ. 

What caused me such distress — and which quite frankly almost compelled me to shout what I had written for the rest of the audience to hear — was instead the tedium of having to read the opera's libretto, which was broadcast in fits and starts on the screen at the front of the stage. It was a particularly maddening experience that violated the cardinal rule of any narrative form: Show, don't tell. It was like reading a 2,000 word-essay through a busted faucet that leaked according to no particular rhythm. 

And that doesn't even get into the amateurish way that the shadow puppets were handled, a fact that was compounded after seeing the skillful and emotional powerhouse that is Ada/Ava earlier in the day. Whereas in Ada, the puppets became living, breathing creatures, in Match Girl, they were just props that casts their shadows across the screen in dashes and darts. It was almost as if the puppeteers had no idea what to do with the puppets and just decided they'd, to use the parlance of our times, wave them around like they just don't care. Coupled with the text, the puppet work caused me to actually laugh out loud five times. A couple of times, my eyes even began to water from the strain of holding back a guffaw.

However, there was a brief glimmer of hope two-thirds of the way through the opera with the introduction of the character of the Narrator, who we'll assume is Hans Chris Andersen. Andersen was revealed to be operating behind the scenes, crafting the opera, it would seem, as we were watching it. Suddenly, Little Match Girl, as a whole, became something exciting, something stirring, something mysterious.

At that moment the possibility that all prior sins could be forgiven was very much a reality, and that the opera's plot and subplot — a seemingly tangential matter involving a female terrorist — might come together in a cohesive fashion. Sadly, that's not what happened. Instead, the performance reverted back to its previous trappings, leaving the audience to count the very long minutes until the titular child passed away. 

As we exited Memminger, a sizable contingency stood and clapped; however, judging by the words that were coming out of their mouths, it appears that some of them may have been from Lachenmann's native Germany. At the very least, they fully understood much of the narration — including one section about a female terrorist in which I could pinpoint various Marxist buzzwords. As such, they were privy to what I now believe was a tale which was a wholesale condemnation of capitalism.

In hindsight, it became increasingly clear that The Little Match Girl perhaps hadn't actually died at all, but that her spirit passed — the one that believed in entrepreneurship and capitalism — and that out of that death of abject poverty was born an anarchist hellbent on destroying the system.

I stand with Dustin on giving this work a C. If the Lachenmann's score and Spoleto Festival Orchestra's work had been anything short of brilliant, Little Match Girl would've been an unforgiving F. However, it all very easily could have been a solid A. With less of a focus on the emo-diary text and a decision to use the shadow puppets as something more filling than an amateurish garnish placed alongside the music, Spoleto's Little Match Girl could have truly been the revolutionary work it was intended to be — and that I wanted it to be.

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