When Michael Gordon premiered his opera “Van Gogh” in 1991, performances were accompanied by an Elliot Caplan video. When presented without the video, as in a concert by the Great Noise Ensemble on Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, the work comes across more as a static song cycle than an opera. The effect is the same as on the recording made by the ensemble Alarm Will Sound, released by the Cantaloupe Music label in 2008.
Gordon set to music several disjointed passages from Van Gogh’s letters, which give a psychological portrait of the Dutch painter. Soprano Lisa Perry, tenor Michael Dodge and baritone Andrew Sauvageau gave voice to the artist’s observations, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in solo moments. Amplification helped smooth over balance issues between voices and with the instrumental ensemble, here playing the enlarged version that Gordon created in 2003.
Perry’s voice flagged under the pressure of the sustained high writing, brutally exposed especially in “The Hague, Part 1,” where Van Gogh describes his relationship with a former prostitute. Dodge trended flat in intonation too often, although he held his part impeccably in the section with the confusing string glissandi that accompany the artist’s stay in a mental hospital in “St. Remy.”
The voices sing predominantly in long note values, while the instruments often percolate on more active repeated patterns. The challenges lie in the juxtaposition of complex rhythms and in the endless repetition of segments, which caused at least one moment of confusion in the long instrumental introduction to the “Arles” movement.
The most memorable part of the piece was also the high point in this performance as the three singers, in “The Hague, Part 2,” repeated the hateful words of the painter’s critical friend, now belied by history: “Of one thing I am sure: You are no artist, you started too late.”