Giuseppe Verdi revered Shakespeare and wrote a Macbeth, an Otello, and a Falstaff. He longed to write a King Lear as well and even worked with two librettists toward that goal.
But although Verdi composed more than two dozen operas, Lear was not among them. During a fatal stroke, he paraphrased Lear’s “Pray you, undo this button,” suggesting that as he slipped into death he was still preoccupied with this elusive work.
Let us visit the recently deceased Verdi, still dreaming of his Lear.
That is the peculiar and provocative premise of Viva V.E.R.D.I.-The Promised End, a daring and deeply moving, if not entirely successful, work by Timothy Nelson, the new artistic director of the production company In Series.
Viva V.E.R.D.I.-The Promised End
closes September 23, 2018
Details and tickets
A text collage, as Nelson calls it, Viva V.E.R.D.I. is essentially a mashup of Verdi’s Requiem and readings from and about Lear. In the intimate confines of Source theatre, it is an enveloping experience. Eight imposing singers, all of whom you are more likely to hear from the distant stage of an opera house or concert hall than in the curtained cloister of Source, render the Requiem while the actor Nanna Ingvarsson portrays Verdi imagining his Lear, Lear himself, and various observers, including the Harvard Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber, commenting on Lear.
Verdi lost two children early in his career, so he left no family. But he established the Casa di Riposo, a home in Milan for retired opera singers and musicians. Nelson’s script incorporates the souls of lost children as well as those of the future singers who would repose in Verdi’s posthumous hospitality. Verdi, as proud Italian treasure but also as a handy acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia, was celebrated with the phrase Viva V.E.R.D.I., adding a nationalistic element to this fantasia on the composer’s afterlife and helping to explain the title.
Those are a lot of references to stuff into a single piece of theater, and a more than casual perusal of your program is advised. But Nelson hopes audience members won’t over-intellectualize all this but take it in emotionally. The work, Nelson writes, began in exploring historical and thematic ties between Lear and the Requiem. But “to speak too much about that connective tissue is to try and make known that which was intended to be felt.”
Considering but then setting aside the background is the best approach to appreciating Viva V.E.R.D.I. Under the direction of Steven Scott Mazzola, Ingvarsson’s spoken segments are interwoven with the gripping performance of the octet as it circulates about the space, somewhat ghostlike in Verdi-era beige and white costumes. Sometimes the singers come up into the audience, and let me tell you, hearing a skilled, professional soprano or seeing the tender facial expression of a tenor is a very different thing when they are a couple feet from you than when they are 50 yards away. When they sing ensemble in the “Dies irae,” accompanied by the superb music director and pianist Paul Leavitt, it is a mighty sound. When they sing the “Agnus Dei,” even the most ardent atheists among us may feel that we are in the warm, loving arms of a benevolent being.
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This all works well when Ingvarsson’s portions are spoken between movements of the Requiem. Too often, though, she is competing with the choir—and losing, even though she is the only cast member with a head mic and occasionally resorts to out and out shouting, which feels less anguished than irritating.
Still, Nelson’s bold conception is a promising one. He might consider expanding on the movement motifs of his players and incorporating an actual dance ensemble to help define, then bridge, Verdi’s and Shakespeare’s worlds. Verdi dancers and Shakespeare dancers could be separate at first, then intermingle and become one in a convergence of the composer’s and the playwright’s imaginations. Thin out the script, and leave the actor’s segments for between sections of the Requiem, even if that lengthens the run time a bit.
Regardless, Viva V.E.R.D.I. is an auspicious beginning to In Series’s new era. Nelson and the company will take us, I expect, into exotic artistic realms.
Viva V.E.R.D.I.-The Promised End, a text collage by Timothy Nelson after King Lear of Shakespeare. Director: Steven Scott Mazzola. Music director and pianist: Paul Leavitt. With actor Nanna Ingvarsson and singers Brian Arreola, Peter Burroughs, Anamer Castrello, Natalie Conte, Teresa Ferrara, Bryan Jackson, Elizabeth Mondragon, and John T.K. Scherch.
Production coordinator: Brian J. Shaw. Lighting design: Marianne Meadows. Set design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Set construction: Matty Griffiths. Costume design: Maria Bissex. Audio engineer: Alec Henneberger. Electricians: Julia Colpitts, Katherine Darnell, Annie Olwen Lewis. Stage manager: Caelan Tietze. Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.