The story of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseult) is one of the greatest love stories in Western literary history, forming not only the basis for Wagner’s opera, but also playing its part in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and providing inspiration for other tragic tales of love. For his composition/theater piece love fail, Pulitzer-winning composer David Lang searched through various texts that tell the story, particularly Gottfried von Strassburg but also Sir Thomas Malory, Marie de France and others, looking, as he says, for “weird incidents.” Stripped of all reference to Tristan, Isolde/Iseult, King Mark or any other elements that would make the piece seem merely a dramatization of the age-old story, love fail is a fascinating meditation on love’s lyricism, its almost mystic force, and its surprising moods and shifting desires.
Sung by the female vocal group Anonymous 4, noted for their adaptations of medieval compositions, such as plainsong, for female voices, love fail is a stunning exercise in vocal precision, polyphony, overlapping voices, and hypnotic variations on simple lyrics. The piece begins with “he was and she was,” in which descriptive terms for the two lovers are sounded against a backdrop of voices, including percussive whispers. With the stage set for intensive listening, the evening becomes an occasion for marveling at what the four gifted singers—Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek—are able to do with their voices, creating layered effects that are—no doubt because of the medieval associations of the music—spiritual and meditative.
There are also humorous elements—mostly provided by texts taken from MacArthur fellow Lydia Davis. Wonderful examples of precision and compression in their own right, Davis’ writings add a wry, modern touch to the piece. Perhaps my favorite segment, “right and wrong” (following “the wood and the vine,” adapted from Marie de France, which is also particularly strong), provides convoluted R.D. Laing-like reflections on how being right doesn’t make one right if, “in some cases,” it is wrong to be right. The “right and wrong” instances are in reference to a female, making the piece a subtle comment on sexual politics as well as a general moral consideration. As sung, the interplay between the lead voice and the accompanying voice is riveting: the lead sounds a single note/word at intervals, and in those intervals the accompanying voice must sing through the text to the next interval. Pacing was everything in this unusual form of call-and-response; the call was almost a punctuation of the response while also acting as an introductory note for each sequence.
The texts are projected on a transparency behind the singers, making it easy to follow the words. There are also large projections showing male and female faces, made-up to appear as if they are in a fantasy film, that are more or less moving portraits. Primarily static, the images move slowly, and are more of a distraction than an illustration. Jim Findlay’s set design is simple and elegant, able to look at home in a concert hall, a theater stage, or a church, but his video design was the least inspiring aspect of the piece. The lighting and look of the faces put me in mind of the recent Cindy Sherman retrospective—not an association I would normally bring to this work.
While each segment of love fail has its own significance, the 12 parts, taken together, yield a progression from introduction of the lovers to reflections on love’s durability, and on the heart’s forgetfulness toward the arguments the head furnishes against love. Musically, we might say it moves toward transcendence of the sorrows of love, though—again, due to medieval associations—the idea of true happiness on earth is remote, and so love and sorrow must be inextricably linked.
A vibrant work for voices, love fail does not fail to provide thought about love, evoking love’s higher aspirations as well as some of its darker reaches. The masterful Anonymous 4 are not to be missed.
IF YOU GO: What: love fail by David Lang performed by Anonymous 4 When: 4 p.m. June 30 Where: Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info: artidea.org
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