Writing in his cell as he awaits the gallows, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” curiously figures that what was to him “little but Horror” will to many appear “a mere series of household events” and “less terrible than barroques.”
“Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace.”
The Viennese early music specialist, organist, conductor and composer Martin Haselböck has found a way to do just that in his “Black Cat” production for tenor, two dancers and video, with Baroque and contemporary music, and an early music ensemble. Given its premiere at the Théâtre National du Luxembourg in 2012, the show then toured Austria and Germany. Saturday the production arrived at Long Beach Opera before heading off to Bogotá, Colombia.
The small-scale production seemed tailor-made for Long Beach Opera and the Beverly O’Neill Theater. Haselböck happens to be music director of the Long Beach period-instrument group Musica Angelica. He was also mastermind of two striking music theater experiments for John Malkovich, “The Infernal Comedy” and “The Giacomo Variations.”
Even so, reducing “The Black Cat” to the commonplace — however elevated by Bach’s anything-but-terrible barroques — has its Poe-sized perils.
The idea here is to contrast a series of tenor arias from Bach cantatas with pop songs by David Sylvian to give different perspectives on Poe’s dark tale of a domestic bliss torn asunder by demon drink. Under the influence of alcohol, a cat-loving husband abuses his docile wife and becomes violent toward his pet, a black cat that he comes to perceive as bewitched.
He blinds the cat, then hangs it from a tree. His house burns down. He gets nastier new digs and a demonic new black cat. Swinging an ax meant for the cat, he instead splits the skull of his wife, whom he buries in a basement wall. The caterwauling cat, also inadvertently buried, gives the murderer away.
Directed by Frank Hoffmann, the production was meant to begin with British tenor Nicholas Mulroy in a cell, singing the aria “Und wenn der harte Todesschlag” (And if the harsh stroke of death), consoled by a crucifix on the wall and the presence of Jesus.
Only it wasn’t Mulroy onstage. It was the show’s assistant director, Jacques Schiltz, who here, like the cat, wasn’t where he was supposed to belong. Mulroy was still in Vienna, unable to complete the paperwork for his visa because of the U.S. government shutdown. His vocal replacement was tenor Aaron Sheehan, who stood with Musica Angelica on the side of the stage. It’s hard to say, not having seen the original production, but Bach coming from the beyond seemed about right.
Projections by Virgil Widrich on three video screens offered both the real world and, through Oleg Prodeus’ digital painting and animation, the narrator’s mental disorientation. Cell quickly became domestic setting. A couple, dancers Sylvia Camarda and Jean-Guillaume Weis, came to breakfast accompanied by a Bach gavotte that startlingly but also charmingly was soon replaced by a recording of Sylvian’s jovial “It’s a Wonderful World.”
When his wife steps out, husband sneaks a flask. Wife is transformed into sexually seductive cat in black halter top and torn tights. No choreographer is credited, but Weis is a former member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, and both his nonchalance and Camarda’s acrobatically risqué feline impersonation are clearly derived from Bausch’s wonderful Wuppertal world.
You know quickly where this is headed as the scenes shift back and forth from convict seeking Bachian solace in his cell to ever more ruinous flashbacks of distorted reality. The video is almost always effective, conveying both inner and outer worlds. Sexiness turns into rough black-cat sex, with the cat woman as signifier of predatory femininity that then gets confused when Weis becomes the cat. The production is never less than compelling to watch. Sheehan proved a quick study and agile tenor. Musica Angelica turns on a Baroque dime.
But the music itself doesn’t take long to lose its dramatic power. Bach’s arias efficiently serve up all-purpose spiritual angst, but that is in part because for these purposes their actual textural content remains only vaguely relevant. Like the Bach, Sylvian’s songs become darker as the situation deteriorates, but Bach-rock shock is only good for one or two times. And in this context Sylvian’s also vaguely relevant songs lack the substance needed for narrative development.
Furthermore just as the music is becoming more predictable, the dance and video head in a more sensational direction. Yes, a Bach violin concerto (arranged from a harpsichord concerto) works just fine underscoring copulation, but Bach-for-all-occasions ubiquity also lessens the effect of the sacred cantata excerpts. They are meant to restore the narrator’s sanity as he awaits execution, which should be the real “Horror.” But we knew that all along.