It was sensuous, mysterious and hypnotic.
Kind of like the ocean. And Gavin Bryars’ “The Paper Nautilus,” presented at the Aquarium of the Pacific in a visually stunning production by Long Beach Opera over the weekend, is an hour-long musical and literary fantasy all about the sea.
The text, in French and English, is from sources as disparate as Pope Leo XIII, Scottish poet Jackie Kay, a Lebanese poet named Etel Adnan and Marie Curie. Madame Curie herself takes center stage, as portrayed by Suzan Hanson, who only speaks a little but still manages to dominate the stage.
Bryars’ minimalist score, impressively played by six percussionists and two pianists under the direction of Benjamin Makino, is by turns beautiful, violent and mercurial. Kind of like the ocean.
As usual with LBO, the singing was terrific. Soprano Ashley Knight, making her company debut, and mezzo Peabody Southwell, an LBO veteran, possess luminous, gorgeous voices and display exemplary diction and musicality.
This production is the first in the LBO’s “Outer Limits” series, sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, which is designed to push the boundaries of music theater beyond those of conventional opera. And this piece is not an opera, but sort of a ballet/cantata. Nothing really happens, and what action there is, directed by company artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek, is stylized and balletic. Dancers from the Nannette Brodie Dance Theater support and complement the principals.
The star of the show was lighting designer Dan Weingarten. His overall design was starkly dramatic, and featured the kind of animated projections that are now familiar to LBO audiences. But the coolest moment came towards the end, when the large fish tank, which until then had been dark, slowly became illuminated and the fish joined in the choreography. It was breathtaking.
Just because the text could be heard clearly (and seen on the projected titles) doesn’t mean it could be easily understood. Fans of a straightforward narrative, or conventional poetry, were probably frustrated by some of the text’s more obscure passages and challenges. But just when you thought this was all pretentious nonsense, a turn of phrase would capture the imagination.
The music, the text, the choreography and the lighting were inextricably intertwined, and together created an enchanting hour that was constantly changing but always deep and profound.
Kind of like the ocean.