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13.7.05

Summer Spectacle: The Noise of Time

I mentioned something that was not really an opera in my post on Opera in the Summer 2005, Simon McBurney's production of The Noise of Time with the Emerson String Quartet and the Théâtre de Complicité. It played in New York first in 2000 and again in 2001, in Los Angeles in 2002, in Paris this June, and at the Mossoviet Theater from July 9 to 12. It's a theatrical work, on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, with his String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat as the soundtrack. Yves Bourgade wrote a tiny capsule preview (Les tourments de Chostakovitch, June 22) for Figaroscope, but I couldn't find any other print reviews. However, blogger Anina was there on June 23 and gave us some impressions:

this performance was amazing. it was a multimedia mix of live actors, chairs on a stage, big screen projection behind, radio announcements, and story telling. i enjoyed how they used the black stage together with coats lit up so as to appear to be flying around, but really it was an actor holding it up and making animations. i liked how they would interplay with sound, wind, and physical elements to tell a 4 sensory story of the life of chostakovitch. i found it really profound when they had him talking and telling the story of how stalin called him up and said, you will go to the usa and perform. chostakovitch said, but sir, how am i to respond when they ask me why over 100 places play my music overseas, and yet i am banned in my own country. stalin asked him, banned by who, by what? when in the usa, chostacovitch had to get up for a speech and he didnt know what to say. they handed him a piece of paper for him to read. in the end he went a bit mad and just kept shouting in to the microphone "i am a puppet on a string...a puppet on a string..."
Jeremy Eichler's review of the New York performance (The Noise of Time, October 2001) is still online from Andante:
Rather than providing clarity, empathy or even just a glimmer of the composer's complex humanity, McBurney gives us hazy theatrical collage and avant-garde bravura. The show, a revival of a Théâtre de Complicité production that premiered at Lincoln Center in March 2000, opens with a radio blaring historic sound bites: Bill Clinton on Monica, the BBC on outer space, scraps of lectures on Morse code and the aural cognition of music. Eventually, men in suits take over the stage, dancing frenetically with chairs to whirling passages from Shostakovich's symphonies. A cello is smashed and its shards convulse in spotlights. And so on.

This is not the depiction of an important life; this is its obfuscation. To give McBurney the benefit of the doubt, one might surmise that he was searching in these scenes for visual corollaries to the composer's music. A worthy intention, and the challenge yields some intriguing results, but it ultimately leaves one desperate for real content. Not surprisingly, The Noise of Time is at its best when integrating snippets of biography amongst the floating space boots and headless trench coats. Powerful excerpts from Shostakovich's letters are read; important episodes of his life, such as his 1949 trip to the United States, are referenced through anecdotes and projected images. At another point, the composer's harsh private indictments of human folly are interspersed with deafening choruses of official Soviet applause.
Well, you can't please everyone all of the time.

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