Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1966 film, “Persona,” begins with a grimly unsettling photomontage that includes the slaughter of lamb. It is accompanied by avant-garde Swedish composer Lars Johan Werle’s intentionally alienating score. This introduces not the film’s two startling characters, a catatonic celebrated actress who refuses to speak and her impressionable nurse who doesn’t shut up, but a state of mind.
More to the point, it sets the psychological stage for a uniquely cinematic investigation of the state of two minds becoming one.
Keeril Makan’s “Persona,” an opera that had its premiere two years ago in a small alternative space in Brooklyn and which opened Thursday night as a full Los Angeles Opera production at REDCAT, begins with a sex scene. It is not a nice sex scene between Alma, the nurse, and a character just called Man in Jay Scheib’s libretto. The scene ends with Alma slapping her lover.
We see it from various angles in the production, which is staged by Scheib. There is live video of the couple on stage projected on nine video monitors irregularly set up around the black box theater. There is also a mirror at the back of the stage reflecting the couple. But the angle that matters the most is the brittle, brilliant music, played by an ensemble of eight musicians, the sound heavily weighted toward piano and percussion.
The instrumental attacks are explosively attention-getting. A kind of pulse that isn’t really a pulse but feels like one sets in. The sonic textures are percussively bright but filled in with an underlying texture. The colors are a little hard to describe, but vivid. The sex is a diversion. Something else is going on, but what?
Bergman’s theme, Susan Sontag has suggested, is doubling. The film, she wrote, is not so much “a representation of transactions” between dueling women, but a “meditation on the film which is ‘about’ them.” It logically follows that the reason to turn “Persona” into an opera would be a double doubling. Along with the parasitic relationship between Alma and Elisabet, the mute actress (who here becomes an opera unsinger), there is the inevitable and equally parasitic conflict between film and lyric stage opera.
The question of why turn a film into an opera may be a good one, but everyone’s doing it. Bergman’s the rage. In September, Finnish National Opera premiered Sebastian Fagerlund’s “Autumn Sonata.” Hitchcock’s the rage. Nico Muhly’s “Marnie,” which will be given its premiere in London on Nov. 18, follows on the heels of Hans Gefors’ “Notorious” at Gothenburg Opera two years ago. Thomas Adès’ spellbinding “Exterminating Angel,” after the mysterious Luis Buñuel film, is being staged by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
When asked at a post-performance discussion, neither Scheib, whose idea “Persona” was, nor Makan could really answer why they went for “Persona.” Something apparently just struck, you might say, a chord. It’s been said about the self-consciously vague film that for any interpretation the opposite also holds. That’s probably as good an excuse for opera as any.
There is a lot the opera “Persona” can’t do. The film is a visual masterpiece. You can watch it with the sound turned off, and it’s amazing. Merely by studying the faces of the actresses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann, the persona, the masks of the characters, you see how one takes over the essence of the other, revealing the paper-thin line between seduction, predation and bloodsucking.
For Makan’s opera to work, you should be able to close your eyes and understand it, striking as Scheib’s production may be. This is not quite a one-woman opera, but everything does necessarily revolve around mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider’s complex Alma.
Where Bergman’s camera can merge the faces of Andersson and Ullmann, where the expressions on Ullmann’s silent Elizabet can reverberate first on Andersson’s face before they become turned into words, we now go far deeper into the nurse than her dominating patient. Scheib’s cameras do give up close-ups of Lacey Dorn’s sullenly beautiful Elisabet on stage, but that doesn’t have the same effect.
In the end, Makan’s “Persona” is a far more traditional opera than Bergman’s is a film. There is nothing groundbreaking musically or dramatically. There are more answers in music than there are on screen. Even the film’s most notorious moment, Alma’s description of an orgy, is more erotic spoken on film than sung in the opera.
But what the opera adds is a new psychological dimension. As Elisabet shockingly overwhelms the persona of Alma, as Alma just as shockingly finds her own inner being, we hear it in her voice, in her quiet and in her screams. Makan’s arias slowly absorb emotion. His instrumental score, performed by a first-rate octet from the L.A. new music community and strongly conducted by Evan Ziporyn, provide something that might be called a psychological atmosphere.
That is to say the ensemble doesn’t motivate action. We still don’t really know what anything means, but music provides much more than the merely creepy sonic atmosphere of the film. Makan’s use of pulse keeps you off guard by deceiving you into thinking you’re not being kept off guard. He creates sounds that you can tell are coming from instruments you know, but you can’t tell how they’re coming from them. That produces a different, equally unique, sensation of interiority.
Another pair: the man, whom Scheib conflates into both an early lover of Alma and Elisabet’s husband (Bergman provides too few clues to prevent the librettist from doing whatever he likes), and the doctor who supervises Alma. The baritone Joshua Jeremiah comes on strong as the lover. Peabody Southwell is a doctor stunningly straight out of a horror film, but oozing dread as only an arresting opera singer can. The second you hear her at opening of the first scene, you know there is more than one “Persona,” and the other is an opera.
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Los Angeles Opera ‘Persona’
Where: REDCAT, 632 W. 2nd St., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday