The REDCAT stage looked like an art installation of the original set for Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Singers, who performed an excerpt from the 1784 opera, wore period costumes and powdered wigs. A small orchestra in modern semiformal dress sat in a makeshift pit.
The opportunity to hear a three-minute excerpt from the finale, the part in which the philandering Count Almaviva asks for, and is given, forgiveness from the Countess, had sold out, and many had bought standby tickets hoping to get in at some point. That was because this three minutes of music, give or take a few seconds, lasted from noon to midnight. Nothing was slowed down, as is the case with Norwegian composer Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch,” a sound installation in which a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth is electronically elongated to last 24 hours, time itself slowing down.
Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Bliss” over the weekend was another sort of Nordic time-twister. The Icelandic artist requires the performers to loop through that same “Figaro” passage nonstop for a full 12 hours as if on autoplay.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, which presented “Bliss” as the most extravagant part of its season-long Fluxus festival, partnering with the Getty and, here, REDCAT, might require a little forgiveness itself. Christopher Rountree, whose idea this performance was, conducted indefatigably. The orchestra was his band, wild Up. Ten singers, several from the talented local pool of new music specialists, were amazing.
The Count pleaded for pardon until he was blue in the face. The Countess, in an act of extreme grace, overcame her anger in one of Mozart’s most magical phrases until she was blue in the face. The rest of the characters gave their approval in a rapt ensemble until they too were blue in the face, and the orchestra was willing accomplice despite repetitive-stress danger. Had he thought of it, Dante might have created a level of hell for #MeToo perpetrators to spend eternity in never-ending contrition.
Then again, Dante may have thought of it and decided it’s too good for them. Believe it or not, there is bliss in “Bliss.” Stick with it for a while and you can become infantilized into believing that redemption, however unreceptive our current culture, is the only way of the world.
This was such an agreeable perception, the inevitability so comforting, the music so accepting, that for a dozen hours REDCAT became a Mozart safe house. The longer you stayed, the greater the effort required to leave, the outside world seeming downright threatening.
Taking periodic breaks, I sat through most of the first seven hours. Then I went upstairs to Walt Disney Concert Hall for the indefatigable L.A. Phil’s other major event that day, Gustavo Dudamel conducting Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass and Beethoven’s Mass in C Major.
The performances were mightily impressive. Haydn’s is one of his greatest works. The Beethoven, programmed for the first time by the orchestra, is unjustly neglected. Haydn had been a mentor to Mozart, and Mozart an inspiration for Beethoven. Had I not known that the drug of redemption awaited me in the depths of Disney, I think I would have been bowled over.
Instead I couldn’t wait to get back to REDCAT. Troubled by the lure of addiction, I hesitated for a few minutes at the bar before finally succumbing for the final 100 minutes. Once back in, I understood the genius of “Bliss” is not that Kjartansson stops time. He makes it not matter.
“Bliss” is neither time as a fourth dimension of space nor dream time. Your state of consciousness is not altered. It is simply time passing as time does. This is extreme art without being fascistic. Each repetition brings something new, the characters finding different ways to interact.
As the Countess, Laurel Irene, who describes herself as a singer and vocologist, was downright superhuman, giving one of the most astonishing performances, vocally and interpretively, I have ever encountered. Although she has only a couple of lines to sing, she found a seeming infinite ways to be resigned, compassionate, forbearing, affectionate, sympathetic, absolving, loving or just sick and tired of the whole thing. Just as remarkable is how beautiful and pure her tone remained, over and over and over again.
Kjartansson, who is best known in L.A. for his installation piece “The Visitors” at the Broad, made “Bliss” for Performa 11, a performance art festival in New York in 2011. His partner in crime was the veteran Icelandic tenor Kristján Jóhannsson singing the baritone role of the Count. In “Bliss” this becomes the most thankless role in all of opera. How many hundreds of times does he have to plead “Pardono”?
The strain was evident from the start, and one drama was whether Jóhannsson would hold out. He did, and as one got used to his voice breaking, he became not just sympathetic but more heroic than any Siegfried.
The singers were brought food and drink onstage from costumed supernumeraries, and that became part of the performance. Rountree would wait a few seconds when Johannsson wanted to take a bite from an apple. About halfway through, a roasted pig was brought out with an apple in its mouth, and slices of meat passed around. Singers and musicians in the orchestra were free to wander offstage and take a break when they needed.
Kjartansson, who directed, took the part of Antonio, the drunken gardener. He carried a dead rabbit for the full 12 hours and was hilarious, hamming it up with — while buoying up — one character after another. He is apparently the one who takes no breaks.
The remaining troupers were Maria Elena Altany (Susanna), Justine Aronson (Barbarina), Lauren Davis (Cherubino), Suzanna Guzmán (Marcellina), James Onsad (Don Basilio), Cedric Berry (Figaro) and Reid Bruton (Don Bartolo). They had all the time in the world to get into character and rehearse every kind of emotion, and before long Mozart’s “Figaro” felt like precursor to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Pity the poor horn player? She did seem exhausted by the end, and the floor around her was littered with water bottles. A few players in the back of the orchestra had a fit of giggles. But Rountree didn’t for one second take a phrase for granted, and those in the pit or in the orchestra never looked as though they wanted to be doing anything else.