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30.3.12

Basil Twist on Opium

The pioneering puppeteer Basil Twist is in the area for a couple months, supervising a city-wide retrospective of his unusual productions, the Twist Festival D.C. After thoroughly enjoying his whimsical take on Stravinsky's Petrushka earlier this month, we were not going to miss the chance to see what is his most famous, breakthrough work, Symphonie fantastique, at the Clarice Smith Center last night. Twist took the music of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, composed in 1830, and made a completely abstract visual work that does not really tell the story the Berlioz wanted to tell but that is nonetheless just as strange and compelling. The puppeteers manipulate abstractions of shape and color inside a large tank of water, viewed by the audience through a stage-like opening about as large as a wide-screen television. Feather-like objects, floating veils, glowing fiber-optic cables, flashlights reflected with mirrors, and other things are dragged through the water like fishing lures, while other parts of this strange tableau, a sort of abstract painting set into motion, are created by lights glowing in the water, dyes released in clouds, and bubbles set floating.

It is one of the oddest things I have ever witnessed, and seeing the amount of work and coordination that went into creating it -- the audience is allowed a peep at the backstage area following the performance -- one could only marvel at the determination that must have been required to make this thing happen the first time (it was premiered in 1998). Berlioz's program symphony was one of the most influential works premiered in the 19th century. In it, Berlioz depicted a series of events based on his own life, initially subtitling it "Episodes from the Life of an Artist." It concerned Berlioz's obsession with the Irish actress Harriet Smithson, how he turns his life inside out because of her, even drugging himself and hallucinating about being executed for murdering her and having his soul condemned to hell. Incredibly, Smithson learned later of the tribute, and she and Berlioz were married for a time, although it ended up unhappily for both of them.


Other Articles:

Nelson Pressley, Basil Twist’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ is spectacle of puppetry and fun (Washington Post, March 31)

Topher Forhecz, Classical music meets puppetry — underwater — at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (Montgomery County Gazette, March 29)

Doug Rule, Born to Puppeteer (Metro Weekly, March 29)

Elizabeth Blair, Basil Twist: A Genius, With Many A String Attached (NPR, March 24)
None of this story makes it into Twist's vision. Puppets of the sort Twist uses in his other productions would probably not seem that much different in water. In a note published in the program, Twist quotes painter Wassily Kandinsky as a way of explaining why he turned to abstraction in a puppet show of all things. As in Petrushka, the movements of the objects in the water tank are timed to the change of Berlioz's ideas in the musical score. About the only concession to Berlioz's program in Twist's vision is the swirling, almost mermaid-like object that appears whenever the symphony's main melodic idea appears in the music. Berlioz identified this theme as his idée fixe, a representation of his obsessive passion for Harriet, heard in different ways throughout the piece: played by the suave violins in first movement's "Dreams and Passions," as a waltz tune in "The Dance," just before the fall of the guillotine blade in the fourth movement, and as part of the witches sabbath in the fifth. (See this striking performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Charles Munch, not without its faults, but quite daring.)

Berlioz was overwhelmed by this obsession, falling in love with both the actress and Shakespeare because of her performance (she played Ophelia, Juliet, and several other roles). Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs, a thoroughly entertaining, if not always truthful, book (trans. Ernest Newman):

I became possessed by an intense, overpowering sense of sadness, that in my then sickly, nervous state produced a mental condition adequately to describe which would take a great physiologist. I could not sleep, I lost my spirits, my favorite studies became distasteful to me, I could not work, and I spent my time wandering aimlessly about Paris and its environs.
The third movement, In the Country, refers to Berlioz's reaction when another young woman, a pianist who was in love with him, told him lies about Harriet's affairs with her leading men. He left Paris and wandered around the country for a couple days, weeping and inconsolable, finally passing out in a ditch.

Twist much prefers to stage his performances with live music, something made possible by having pianist Christopher O'Riley on hand to play a transcription of Berlioz's score on the piano. O'Riley's transcription was mostly Franz Liszt's outlandishly difficult arrangement for solo piano, in which form many listeners across Europe first heard the work. In a brief conversation following the performance, O'Riley told me that he had made a few tweaks to the score, most notably by adding some appropriately doom-filled overtones to the strikes of the bells in the Witches Sabbath movement, which Liszt notated just as octaves. O'Riley got an impressive percentage of the notes (few can hit as many of them as Liszt reportedly did), grimacing with the effort in the more strenuous passages. Unfortunately, clumsy amplification of the piano ruined the effect of live music by magnifying the blemishes and giving a canned sound to the music. The barn-like acoustic of the theater may have made the amplification necessary, but with that kind of sound, one could have just as easily played a recording.

This unusual performance will be repeated tonight and tomorrow (March 30 and 31), at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.

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