Music of bitterness, irony and black humor characterizes Frederic Rzewski's grim oratorio "The Triumph of Death," a 4-year-old work that reached the West Coast, via the annual Spring Festival at CalArts, Sunday night.
Based on Peter Weiss' 11-part play, which it follows in form, the intermissionless cantata, set for string quartet, an undefined number of singers (here, four), speaker and electronics, recounts in 120 harrowing minutes the experience of being at the Auschwitz extermination camp during the 1940s.
Staged most sensitively by Mark McQuown and expertly performed by an ensemble conducted by Paul Vorwerk, the piece on Sunday made all its grisly points pertinently, with vivid dramatic contrasts and thorough musical/histrionic effectiveness. Tightly constructed and paced, it seems like an important work; at this premiere performance it certainly proved shattering at its emotional peaks.
But it is not, for all Rzewski's ingenious use of an eclectic--but individual--musical palette, a work one wants to experience a second time. In the Modular Theater at Valencia, it even lost some of its audience during the performance.
This despite McQuown's engrossing staging scheme, which puts extraordinary extramusical demands on the four string players, and creates provocative visual groupings in front of and within a complex and alienating unit set. One can hardly imagine stronger integration of staging and music.
The resourceful singers, playing multiple roles effortlessly, were Jacqui Bobak, Paul Hillier, Adam Klein and Carol Plantamura. Speaker William Dennis Hunt created voices.
The string players were Robin Lorentz, Sarah Bernstein, Ana Alfaro Salvatierra and Hugh Livingston. Ken Parks created the set design, and Aubrey Wilson the faceted, viable and dramatically supportive lighting scheme.