We have managed to mummify great art. Our classical music, our classic theater, our Old Master artworks are presented in such halos of sanctity that it’s hard to apprehend them as the moving, vital things they are. Those of us who are used to the trappings tend to forget the artifice — until someone rips off the mummy’s bindings and presents the bloody immediate reality this art had when it was new: when it was provocative, unfamiliar, something you might not like. Timothy Nelson, the new artistic director of the In Series, managed to do this with his company debut, “Viva V.E. R. D. I.: The Promised End,” directed by Steven Scott Mazzola, which opened a two-week run at the Source Theatre on Saturday night.
Mind you, some people might hate this piece. Indeed, when I describe it, it sounds like parody. It features an actress playing Giuseppe Verdi and King Lear (both at the same time) in a monologue Nelson created by combining excerpts of Shakespeare’s play and other sources. All this is juxtaposed with a complete performance of the Verdi Requiem with a pianist and eight singers in period costume from 1901 (the year of Verdi’s death), who enact the music as they sing, taking on not so much characters as human emotions. The music often drowns out the actress, and sometimes vice versa.
I went in armed with both hope and skepticism. I was mightily interested to see what Nelson, who used to run the intriguing American Opera Theater in Baltimore, would bring to the In Series, which has for almost four decades been a labor of love for its now-retired founder, Carla Hübner. But I wasn’t sure how well the collage treatment would do by either Verdi or Shakespeare.
What I saw proved less avant-garde or experimental than I expected: The music was not “collaged” at all (apart from one iteration of “Va pensiero,” the chorus from “Nabucco,” sung at the beginning, before the Requiem started). But what I really wasn’t prepared for was the visceral impact it had on me to sit in a small space and have this powerful, beloved music in my face, enacted by people who were mining both the dramatic and musical meaning of each line, resulting in an emotional directness that bypassed reason or analysis.
It did remind me of two other experiences: the times the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra played Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” from memory, moving around the stage as they performed. Here as there, a raw nerve of music was exposed and laid directly on my own nerves, and I found myself fighting tears without being able to say entirely why.
I hate even to go into critic-speak about which of the singers were better or worse, because I ended up loving them all for different reasons (especially the four women, sopranos Teresa Ferrara and Natalie Conte and mezzos Anamer Castrello and Elizabeth Mondragon), and because the point was about something so much more important than whether I or anyone else was going to analyze musical perfection or play “gotcha” over an occasional slip. It is already praise to say that they did justice to the Requiem, which is a hell of a sing even when you’re not interacting with one another, an actress or members of the audience. Sometimes they divided up solo lines so that the tenor aria “Ingemisco” was shared phrase by phrase between Brian Arreola and Peter Burroughs, sometimes simply trading off so that each bass, Bryan Jackson and John T.K. Scherch, got his own aria. Paul Leavitt, the music director, executed a marathon of his own, playing the entire piano part and conducting when he had a hand free. And actress Nanna Ingvarsson’s performance was a tour de force. She, Mazzola and the singers worked with Nelson’s framework to create a clear narrative, so that words and music led from one emotional space to another — as when, after the “Dies Irae” ended shatteringly, Ingvarsson described a sunrise so that the next movement, the Offertory, began, literally, in a different light.
The piece certainly had its longueurs: There were moments when I wondered how the creative team could possibly sustain the emotional intensity through some of the less-powerful musical passages. But it consistently held my attention and sustained its goals. I have no idea how it might strike other people — either those who love the Requiem as much as I do, or those who are encountering the music for the first time and experiencing this performance primarily as a work of theater. Certainly the opening-night audience greeted the performers with the enthusiasm they deserved.
Art is naive. There’s something painfully innocent about the attempt to forge a meaningful statement out of nothing; to stand up in front of people and sing or play or speak with all your heart, knowing you may look foolish, knowing you may spectacularly fail. Our big institutions, the mighty choruses and orchestras and theaters that offer Verdi Requiems and King Lears, generally insulate us and themselves from this kind of failure: At the very least, they are offering established masterpieces, works that are beyond criticism. It’s not easy to put these works back in the hands of individuals and allow them a new hearing, with all the vulnerability and risk involved. This piece, to me, did that, and said something significant about art in the process. Whatever you think of it, it signals a significant new presence on the D.C. scene, and I am eager to see what else this enterprising little company has to offer.
"Viva V.E. R. D. I.: The Promised End" continues at the Source through Sept. 23.