A Painstaking Spell: reviewing Promenade Opera Project's "Justice Or Mercy"
Last summer, a three story property in Cambridge’s Porter Square erupted in a frenzy of political intrigue, mystery, and murder. It is unlikely that you heard about this, or heard any of it unfold, although you might have walked right by as it played out. While you were on your way to a trendy ice cream cone, bowl of handmade pasta, or maybe just to pick up a prescription nearby: an assassination attempt was botched, a childhood friendship cum unrequited love burned itself up in a fury of gunfire, and the history of the free world was rewritten.
Why didn’t you know then? Well, because this all happened in the language of opera, and if there is one thing I always knew about the opera…it’s that no one understands what happens at the opera.
That is, maybe, until the formation of Promenade Opera Project. Promenade, founded by three graduate students (Rachel Davies, Madeline Ross of Longy School Of Music, and Marcus Schenck of Boston Conservatory at Berklee), has a mission to deliver the opera in a way that it’s never been delivered before, and immerse us in, fully, it’s plot. You can’t remain unaware of the action if you are forced to take part in it. Even if it happens in an antiquated version of a foreign language.
This tale of attempted murder and political upheaval was Promenade Opera Project’s freshman effort, an adaptation of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, renamed for the immersive “stage”: Justice Or Mercy. The original ending, one of clemency (or mercy), was shelved for this production alongside one of vengeance (or justice), and the audience was put in control of which would be presented at the conclusion of each performance.
The show succeeds in being immersive in that the action does indeed play out all around, to the left and right and behind the audience, sometimes even out of sight. However, it suffers by insisting on being attended to; sat and watched. Or sat and listened to. But sat. There is limited joy of discovery, of peeking, of the walking in on of something secret. If the opera is indeed to be torn from its culturally accepted reputation of stuck in place, it might take just a bit more pushing.
This pushing though, I suspect, is exactly what the artists behind Promenade Opera Project are laying the foundation to take on. This, their first performance, did indeed aspire to that Holy Grail of immersion, experiential, and achieves some notable milestones in that direction.
The setting itself though, while beautiful, works against the concentric and metronomic physical reinforcement required for true and uninterrupted immersion. The temporary theater is the borrowed home of a generous Longy professor and could have done well with a few dimmer switches, or a bit of roughing up to go along with the heavy themes of corruption and cover-up. We are treated to a universe bending vocal performance by a powerhouse of talented artists. The scenery, though, fails to bend from its buttoned up for entertaining the neighbors roots.
The audience plays the role of jury during intermission, deciding the fate of the alleged murderer, a conviction delivering not only a potential prison term but the sentence of death. This process plays out over a cheerful cocktail (mint julep anyone?) and plates of egg salad and hummus. The intermission itself may be the most successful and unexpected immersion, as the audience is invited to become one of the supporting cast; unnamed ridiculous politicians chumming it up over glasses of red wine and cheap whiskey while deciding whether or not to kill off one of our own.
Immersion is a spell though. It is painstaking to cast and despite the hypnotic and utterly mesmerizing vocal performance in close quarters, a single breath out of place still risks bringing the illusion crashing down. A pivotal scene, that is written as a private conversation (overtly so: “no one can hear us now”), but plays out publicly in front of the audience is a beautiful moment of theater, of revelations between lifelong friends, a life saved decades before it is attempted to be snuffed out. But, are we here? Are we listening? Are we supposed to be? Or are we just theater goers banished now back to our seats? We lose our place in the story just before the exciting conclusion of the tale. We’ve already cast our votes for conviction or acquittal, but have now been excommunicated from the political inner workings.
The resolution, though, does bring us back in force with a simulcast of a live sentencing in which the audience is treated to two views at once and is rocketed back into the action. How have our fellow jurors voted? We should have been watching more closely instead of downing that second glass of wine. We are all glued to the proceedings, having failed to realize at the time how closely we were to the writing of history.
I heard rumor of a previous show being hijacked by a lobbyist. Not a plant, but just a crafty audience member. Who has lobbied for our show? Will we get the ending we want and this fictional country deserves? Is all of this enough to bring us back to the primal participation of experiential theater?
Almost. Maybe. Maybe it depends on which ending will play. The cast themselves don’t know until this very moment. They have two endings rehearsed depending on the results of our voting. The final scene unfolds with true emotion, surprise and terror written right into the dynamic script. This victory of the experiential may be the ultimate challenge of this truly ambitious show. A cast that carries their lines up until this point with the confident baritone or soprano which is their birthright, trips a time or two as the action wraps up.
The spell though descends in finality as those voices whip us back into a frenzy one last time, delivering simultaneously a crash course in the traditional opera sounds and stylings along with the results of our just this moment voting, unbeknownst to even the players themselves.
Ultimately immensely entertaining, this show dazzles, informs, and surprises but never quite consummates itself to its opening sequence of sexual gratification reimagined as aria and live piano accompaniment in close quarters. If experiential is the measure of success though, Promenade Opera Project is threatening to usher in a whole new era of opera, of theater, and of performance in general. Despite a few snags in their ambition to drop us deep into a desperate pit of revealing narrative, this early effort from this visionary team may have been the first step in rewriting the definition of opera for a new generation.