Rough edges need polishing in new opera of cult film “La Jetée”

Wed Nov 09, 2022 at 1:57 pm

By John von Rhein

Seth Boustead’s La Jetée was premiered by ACM and Chicago Fringe Opera Tuesday night at Constellation. Photo: Elliot Mandel

It seems rather presumptuous of Access Contemporary Music and Chicago Fringe Opera to charge up to $30 for admission to a workshop performance of a collaboration billed in advance as a concert performance.

A fine distinction, perhaps, but the groups owe it to their respective followings to be more candid about whether their first joint venture is a finished music theater work awaiting a full staging, or still a work-in-progress.

There was no escaping the latter impression at Tuesday’s premiere by ACM and Fringe Opera of La Jetée, an 80-minute adaptation of writer-director Chris Marker’s 1962 cult science-fiction film of the same name. The enthusiastic audience that flocked to Constellation Chicago on the city’s Northwest Side learned of its workshop status at that time. The event was livestreamed and a repeat performance is scheduled at the club on Thursday night.

While the premiere of this new chamber opera in its present form—with music by Seth Boustead (executive director and co-founder of ACM) and libretto by J. Robert Lennon—had its rough edges, there was enough going on in the score and its performance by a cast of four solo singers, ACM’s 13-member Palomar Ensemble and the chamber chorus Lux Cantorum Chicago to suggest the collaborators are at least on the right track.

Even allowing for the inbuilt limitations of a concert version, there also were scenes that fizzled dramatically or were not supported by music of more than blandly utilitarian function.

The film’s unsettling tale of a post-nuclear-war experiment in time travel gone awry—which also inspired director Terry Gilliam’s film 12 Monkeys (1992)—is both expanded and made more universal in this operatic retelling. The moral: Human existence is but a time loop from which there is no escape from the folly of humankind.

A horrific war has devastated the planet, prompting pseudo-scientists working in an underground lab to send prisoners to different time periods in hopes of finding a means to restore order. The opera’s protagonist, known only as The Man, is chosen to go back in time by virtue of his ability to withstand the shock of time travel and his obsession with an image from his boyhood—that of a man shot and killed and a woman screaming.

The Man is sent back to his encounter with the woman of his childhood. She calls him her “ghost” from out of a dream. They begin a romantic relationship. Their happiness is cut short by the scientists’ sending him to the far future from which he is able to obtain a “power unit” that miraculously restores the world to its prewar state. Only when he is reunited with the woman who has long haunted his subconscious does he realize that the man whose death he glimpsed as a boy was himself. 

The libretto, consisting of a succession of short, discrete scenes, often jumps back and forth from present to past to future time so quickly that the plot can be confusing to anyone who hasn’t seen the original film, even with surtitles outlining the unseen dramatic action. (“The Man returns to the Present, bringing a gift of great power” is a fair example.)

To its credit, the operatic La Jetée develops to some degree an element Marker’s half-hour film treats only cursorily—the affair between the obsessed time-traveler and the mystery woman who has haunted his memory since his youth. Their love blossoms in a shimmering duet crowned by a soaring solo violin, over delicate ripples of strings, piano and flute.

Musical highlights of that sort justified turning La Jetée into an opera. Too bad much of the rest of the score feels dull and uninspired. (Some rewriting would surely help before the piece reaches the stage.) 

On Tuesday, conductor Catherine O’Shaughnessy beat time efficiently and kept everything moving effectively. But the instrumental playing did not always come alive with the necessary musical punch, and one wanted more nuanced contributions from the ensemble of winds, brass, strings, percussion and piano. An exception was the fine keyboard work of Amy Wurtz.  

Samuel Dewese brought a palpable lyric intensity to his singing as The Man, even in a performance that found the vocal soloists bound to their music stands. (Fringe Opera’s George Cederquist was listed as director.) Dewese’s rock-solid vocalism laid bare the troubled psyche of a protagonist unmoored in time, hopelessly mired in the unspoiled innocence of his boyhood memories. 

Dewese and Brennan Martinez, as The Woman, blended voices affectingly. She wrapped her well-schooled and sensitive soprano around the character’s singable vocal lines with similarly spot-on expressive purpose.

Dorian McCall sang strongly as the Second Experimenter, but Isaac Fishman made only a tentative impression as the First Experimenter. The brief choral interjections were capably taken, if not always with optimum integration of voices, by the 18-member chamber choir.

La Jetée will be repeated 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.;

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Rough edges need polishing in new opera of cult film “La Jetée””

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2022 at 3:41 pm by Camille Bourdet

    Wow, where to even start with this review? I was in the audience on Tuesday night and I was well aware that I was walking into a workshopped performance of a new opera.

    I knew this because it was mentioned in every email I received, on the Facebook event page and on the CFO website. How the reviewer did not know that he was walking into a workshop is beyond me.

    Constellation is a great venue but it’s not nearly big enough to stage an opera with an orchestra and chorus. I’m truly baffled that you didn’t know this was a workshop.

    Then you complain about the price. I gladly paid $30 and, as you mentioned, others flocked to the venue. The place was packed! On a Tuesday night for an 8:30 performance!!

    And what a diverse young crowd it was too. These were people you’d never see at the CSO. Clearly the price point was fair and again, as with the fact that this was a workshop, we all knew the price going in and gladly paid it.

    There were 40 some odd musicians on that stage and they sounded amazing. That was worth $30.

    As for the concert itself were we in the same room? I was in a room with 100ish people, many of them young, who sat so still you could hear a pin drop for 80 minutes. No one even got up to go to the bar. Clearly they did not find the performance dull and uninspired.

    I can only assume that this reviewer was so upset by the fact that he didn’t realize this was a workshop that it negatively colored his perception of the entire evening. What a shame.

  2. Posted Nov 10, 2022 at 9:38 am by Francesco

    The right price is the price people are willing to pay. If the house was packed then $30 was the right price.

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