“The Black Cat” is a dark, disturbing Edgar Allan Poe short story about murder and remorse, and the operatic version that received its U.S. premiere from Long Beach Opera over the weekend at the Beverly O’Neill Theater was staged with an artful, fanciful flair and imbued with a stirringly strange combination of evocative dance and a pairing of unexpected musical partners.
In this presentation by music director Martin Haselböck, director Frank Hoffmann and visual artist Virgil Widrich, The Black Cat alternates between traditional music by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed live by organist-conductor Haselböck and Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, and febrile dream sequences enacted to a soundtrack of prerecorded songs by David Sylvian, former leader of the English new-wave band Japan.
At first, the juxtaposition of arias from Bach’s cantatas with Sylvian’s songs was jarring. The arias, sung by tenor Aaron Sheehan and deftly delivered by Musica Angelica Baroque, had a vibrant presence at Sunday’s matinee in the intimate O’Neill Theater, unlike Sylvian’s canned recordings. But the contrast between live and recorded music — as well as the contrast between Bach’s conventional melodies and Sylvian’s moody art-pop passages — eventually began to make sense, adding an allure of unsettling mystery to the production. There were even a few times when the work of the two composers was mashed together and overlapped intriguingly, with the members of the small ensemble Musica Angelica Baroque alertly playing a kind of brief call-and-response with the feedback and random noise that underpins Sylvian’s songs.
In Poe’s tale, an alcoholic man disfigures and later kills his pet cat, Pluto (portrayed with leonine grace by Luxembourg dancer Sylvia Camarda), before regretting his drunken, spontaneous act when he’s haunted by Pluto’s ghost. The man’s house burns down — perhaps in an act of revenge by the cat’s spirit — and the man is so tormented that he murders his wife (also played by Camarda) in another fit of rage before everything falls apart and he’s arrested by the police. The husband is portrayed by another adept dancer from Luxembourg, Jean-Guillaume Weis, whereas Jacques Schlitz acts the part of tenor Sheehan, who spends much of the time just offstage alongside Musica Angelica Baroque before finally moving onstage near the end.
President Trump also played a small part — at least in altering the production. Sheehan was a last-minute replacement for British tenor Nicholas Mulroy, who was unable to get his visa processed to enter the United States in time for the Long Beach performances due to this country’s ongoing government shutdown. Sheehan did an impressive job on short notice, singing Bach’s German-language arias in a crisp, clear voice. The members of Musica Angelica were also part of the acting (and even singing) at one point after laying down their instruments, donning black hats and cloaks and entering the stage as a group to surround and torment the murderer.
Widrich’s film projections and Oleg Prodeus’ animation added a clever visual element to the mostly bare-bones set of the couple’s house where most of the action takes place. Stage lighting and video images helped to evoke the fire that burns the house down, as well as the wall where the murderer tries to hide his wife’s body. Unlike in the original short story by Poe, the violence in the opera was more symbolic than brutal, as even the darkest moments — the cat and wife being killed, the house burning down — were more surreal and cartoonlike than morbidly realistic.
Camarda was especially impressive in her two roles as the wife and Pluto. Her chemistry with Weis gave the production a warmth and personality that was missing in the thin libretto. As Pluto, Camarda prowled the stage with an aptly feline poise that made her interactions with Weis and Schlitz sensual and captivating.
Poe’s short story was characterized by the author’s trademark style of lavish prose and neurotically obsessive details, but this operatic adaptation eschews much of the writer’s fantastic, overloaded descriptions in lieu of Sylvian’s enigmatic lyrics, the dancers’ movements and the minimalist staging. Even prerecorded, Sylvian’s downbeat songs instilled a more modern atmosphere of menace and longing in contrast to Bach’s formal arias. Sylvian’s music nonetheless would have had much more impact if it had been performed live. The opera also might have been even more remarkable if the creators had devised more ways to integrate Bach’s and Sylvian’s music together.
It all should not have worked, but the combination of two such different composers, blended with the expressive choreography, helped make The Black Cat an unusual and occasionally even poignant artistic experiment.