Melissa Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata, a choral work based on the Senate Judiciary testimony of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was recently given a new production at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. The program also included Jeff Myers’ one-act opera The Hunger Art.
The event marked the debut of the Burning Bayreuth music series which seeks “to produce socially relevant works in an approachable format that invites audience response.” Both works were directed by Timothy Nelson and conducted by Burning Bayreuth founder Noah S. Weber.
The Gonzales Cantata premiered the preceding summer in Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. (For my review of that performance, see “Watching the Gonzales Cantata.”) The libretto is taken from the 2007 Senate Judiciary Hearings of Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and from Gonzales’ resignation statement on August 27, 2007.
In Dunphy’s rendition, the genders of the performers are reversed from those of their characters. In the previous production at the Philadelphia Fringe festival, staged by composer Dunphy, the male senators — played by women — were attired with crinoline dresses and tiaras. (See: “Photos from the Gonzales Cantata.”) The staging at the Fisher was less frivolous. Arrayed in identical black suits, the Congressional investigation comes across as a more somber inquisition. Soprano Julia Bullock’s expressive performance — both musically and dramatically — intensified the gravity of the presentation.
There were still moments of humor, most notably when Bullock’s Gonzales sings “I don’t recall” 71 times — as the Attorney General stated in his testimony on April 19, 2007. Overall, however, the Bard College production accentuated the tragedy of Gonzales’ downfall.
As with the performance at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the program opened with “three patriotic songs,” which ranged from countertenor Nicholas Tamagna singing a sublime and moving rendition of “America the Beautiful” to a tongue-in-cheek version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
Jeff Myers’ one-act opera The Hunger Art is a modern day mash-up of Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story “The Hunger Artist” and the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. As staged by director Nelson, the husband and wife hunger artists perform their craft not in a cage in Prague as in Kafka’s tale but on television, observed by a trio of cynical butchers who lounge on a sofa and swig beers as they watch the pair to make sure they don’t cheat by taking a bite of food.
Although the two works differ both musically and dramatically, the production connects the two pieces with motifs that echo through both works.
Just as the hunger artists in Myers’ piece perform their act on television, in the Gonzales Cantata we first see the Congressional proceedings through the window of a television screen — as most of us did the actual hearings. And just as when one of the hunger artists breaks the fast by eating an apple, when Bullock’s Gonzales falls from grace, it’s also with a bite from an apple.
These reflections between the two works reveal new overtones to Dunphy’s Cantata by evoking the taint of original sin in Gonzales’ fall and the voyeurism in our glee in watching it all play out on live television. Although conceived as a cantata, the staging and dramatic performances expand this version into a full-fledged opera.
One of the tenets of Burning Bayreuth is that works benefit from a second performance — that repeated viewings and new interpretations often reveal deeper connotations. Weber and Nelson prove the point with their realization of Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata. This new production — and the strong performances of the cast — add additional nuances to Dunphy’s work.
There are rumors that Ms. Dunphy may bring the work to Washington D.C. If so, it will be fascinating to see what new dimensions the work assumes when performed so close to where the original events occurred.