For those few who will have the opportunity to see it, Long Beach Opera’s southern California premiere staging of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field should stand, easily, as one of the most singularly compelling musical or dramatic productions to be offered in these parts this year. Or perhaps I should say that it will stand uneasily, because unease and uncertainty, the unresolvable conjoined with the unmentionable, lie at its heart.
Difficulty hangs on the slimmest of narrative threads, a 750-word story by Ambrose Bierce in which Mr. Williamson, a plantation owner in 1854 near Selma, Alabama, one day sets out to walk across one of his fields to deliver an instruction and, in plain view of witnesses, disappears. The witnesses are astonished; Williamson’s wife loses her wits, either on the spot or shortly after. There is an inquiry by the law. Bierce gives the oddly redacted testimony of Williamson’s neighbor, Mr. Wren, and attorney readers in particular will appreciate Bierce’s way with the shaky reliability of eyewitnesses. Bierce reports flatly in his final sentence that Williamson was declared dead, his property distributed according to law. What has happened is never explained: “It is not the purpose of this narrative,” Bierce writes midway, “to answer that question.”
The stage version originated as a commission from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, and premiered in a small alternative space in San Francisco in 2002. The music is by David Lang, one third of New York's Bang on a Can and recent Pulitzer Prize winner for The Little Match Girl Passion. The text is by playwright Mac Wellman. Between them, Lang and Wellman collect the cryptic fragments of Mr. Williamson’s disappearance and spin them into something even more cryptic. In a pre-performance talk Wednesday evening, David Lang noted that Wellman’s libretto includes at least once every word in Bierce’s original. Wellman’s most critical contribution is to give voice to those whose testimony is pointedly not sought out or considered to be of interest in Bierce’s story: Williamson’s young daughter (a babe in arms in the tale, a soprano here), the now-disturbed Mrs. Williamson and, above all, Mr. Wren’s house slave Boy Sam and Mr. Williamson’s own field slaves. Bierce, again:
Mrs. Williamson had lost her reason and the servants were, of course, not competent to testify. . . . None of the field hands working in the field to which Williamson was going had seen him at all, and the most rigorous search of the entire plantation and adjoining country failed to supply a clew. The most monstrous and grotesque fictions [sic], originating with the blacks, were current in that part of the State for many years, and probably are to this day . . . .
David Lang scored the piece for string quartet, specifically the Kronos Quartet in the original production. (In Long Beach, the score receives a highly capable and sympathetic treatment at the hands of the Lyris Quartet, conducted by Benjamin Makino.) The music is rooted in contemporary minimalism, with discrete melodic shards repeating in shifting relation to one another. Like that of Philip Glass, Lang's minimalist method is remarkably fluid, and able to shift instantly from jittery nervousness to chanting mysticism to lyrical melancholy. It melds well with the parallel technique of Wellman's text, in which key phrases recur and recur, their seeming significance altered by the other phrases that move around them. "We are constructing a nation," the field slaves sing early on; moments later, the phrase has become more ominous: "We are constructing an erasure."
For once not wielding the conductor's baton, Long Beach Opera Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek has designed and directed a production that brings out all the ineffable mystery Difficulty carries about its person. Again, as for Glass's Akhnaten, the company returns to the Long Beach's Terrace Theater. Instead of the usual arrangement, however, the audience is seated on the stage and the performance takes place on the segmented elevator in the orchestra pit, and within the dim and cavernous space beyond. A long ramp, illuminated from below, runs out into the house, and it is along that ramp that Mr. Williamson disappears. The investigating magistrate, bat-like shadows behind him, presides over his inquiry from the upper balcony. The rows of theater seats echo the rows of crops that are tended by the field slaves, who approach through mist out of the darkness to share their piece of the mystery. Mitisek has made a habit of staging opera in unusual spaces, or of using the available space in unexpected ways; this may be his neatest scenic conceit yet.
The cast is uniformly impressive. Suzan Hanson, who began the season as Medea, is mad again as Mrs. Williamson. She is perched high atop a stool or ladder, rising and descending in the pit, her enormous skirts spreading out over the ground around her as she tries to grasp what has happened to all she once took for granted. Mrs. Williamson's music is the most "operatic" in the piece, and Hanson's rich and subtle soprano (and her rich and subtle dramatic chops) entrance as they disturb. As the young Williamson girl, Valerie Vinzant spends her time on the floor drawing and recalling the last thing her father said to her—"What is the point of talking crap like that?"—in response to her Cassandra-like suggestion that the horses know something important and must be understood. Lang has given the character music as lovely as anything in the piece, and Vinzant sings it rivetingly.
The field slaves are central to Difficulty and the eight-member ensemble gathered in Long Beach is a powerful one. Dabney Ross Jones, as the slave known as Virginia Creeper, stands out particularly, as a leader with one eye on the infinite and the other on the earthly problem of what is to be done under indefensible conditions. [Update: See also the comment of J C Johnson, below, which helpfully singles out the contribution of another ensemble member, bass Nicholas Shelton.] As Mr. Wren's Boy Sam, Eric B. Anthony impresses with an eery high tenor, unsure what he has seen and whether he should share it (as if the whites would even listen if he did).
Robin Buck, a roguish villain in Moscow Cherry Town, returns in the mostly-speaking roles of Mr. Wren and of Williamson's brother/overseer, through whom we learn that Williamson favored the unyieldingly harsh philosophies of John C. Calhoun in the "management" of his slave population. In separate scenes, each of Buck's characters provides testimony contradictory of the other, neither getting any grip on what may have occurred.
Mr. Williamson himself, and the investigating magistrate, both non-singing roles, are played by Long Beach stalwart Mark Bringelson. Stern, humorless and puritanical as the magistrate, grotesque in the manner of little men with undeserved power as Williamson, Bringelson is a compelling pivot round whom the other characters' plans and reactions turn. Moreover, he brings a surprising grace to his character's actual disappearance, giving away nothing while becoming nothing.
So what, we ask, has actually happened? Did Mr. Williamson light out for the territory? Was he swallowed by a particularly subtle and efficient sinkhole? Beamed up by aliens? Is he the Don Giovanni of Selma, Alabama, hauled away in a trice to pay for his sins? None can say. These are [among] the Mysteries of Selma, Alabama.
To return: I am outspokenly pro-Long Beach Opera, and I have made no secret of my belief that the company has been on a remarkable streak of excellence over the past two seasons and more. I was amazed, in the best sense, by the impact of this production, which I may well decide is the best thing I've seen, anywhere, in the past several years. Difficulty lives up to its name, in the sense of being Not For Everybody and Certainly Not, Like, Puccini. It is, for me, shudderingly fine, as a work and as a production. I told several who were willing to listen after the performance that it had left me in a condition of awe-struck wonder.
The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is a capital-M Major work of contemporary music theater, and it deserves a much larger audience than it has received in its sporadic appearances over the past decade. See it if you can, and pass it on.
Only two performances remain, both on Saturday, June 18. The evening performance is apparently sold out, but there may still be tickets to be had for the 2:00 matinee.
Incidentally, Ambrose Bierce is in line for a collected edition of his work from the eminent Library of America in September.
A podcast of David Lang talking about Difficulty can be listened to here. Nearby you can listen to a complete recording of the piece. The origins of the recording are not stated: it may be taken from the original San Francisco staging of 2002, or it may be from somewhere else. (Difficulty has not had a commercial recording released.) I find it clearly inferior to the Long Beach version, largely because the performers in the recording have been called upon to speak and sing with too-heavy stage-Southern accents. That was a mistake, one not repeated in Andreas Mitisek's production.
Photos: For the sake of getting it online, this post initially went up without photos. All photos above are by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.