The American premiere of Evan Ziporyn's dance-opera A House in Bali was presented by Cal Performances last weekend. This ambitious project involves percussion, bass, keyboard, cello, violin, guitar, a 15-piece gamelan orchestra, Balinese dancers, opera singers, Balinese singers, and real-time videography. Despite a panoply of instruments, the two ensembles, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Gamelan Salukat, played tightly and blended well together. The appeal of gamelan was clearly conveyed, and the music was both hypnotic and engaging.
Unfortunately, as an opera, the work was not particularly dramatic. There was much subtext about Orientalism in art and anthropology, and one appreciates that. However, as a result, Colin McPhee, Walter Spies, and Margaret Mead came off as rather unsympathetic characters. Musically they were difficult to listen to as well, as they, and everyone else on stage, was amplified. For some reason, the opera singers were particularly painfully loud at times. Tenor Marc Molomot (McPhee) had some shrill, strained moments, as did soprano Anne Harley (Mead). Timur Bekbosunov (Spies) seemed warmer and quieter vocally.
The staging and choreography from Anne Harley and Dewi Kadek Aryani, was attractive. The skillful use of video took advantage of the space created onstage, and gave us details of the dancing that could not have normally been seen from afar. All the dancers had gorgeous control of their hands. Dewi Kadek Aryani had some fluid, beautiful backbends, Desak Made Suarti Laksmi moved with great dignity, and I Nyoman Catra was comical. However, when Dewi convulsed across the stage at the end in Western dress and loose hair, my final impression was that this was all rather cerebral for a form that is so visceral.
* Tattling *
At the Sunday performance, were many latecomers, myself included, that were seated after the first scene. The mezzanine was not at all full, so hopefully this was not too disruptive. In any case, people felt very comfortable talking at full volume during the gamelan parts. Given how amplified everything was, they were drowned out pretty effectively.