Atlanta Opera: Out of Darkness: Two Remain

I found Atlanta Opera’s production of Out of Darkness: Two Remain to be a bit uneven. Composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by Gene Scheer, it’s made up of two acts, with the first being a chamber opera and the second a musical, the plot driven forward more by unsung dialog than by the music. Both depict aged survivors struggling with their memories of the horrors of the Shoah and are based on the writings of real people. The first act was a masterpiece that moved me to tears. The second was merely decent in terms of the writing and composition and was rendered barely better than mediocre by this production’s casting and staging, though it was not without some moving moments.

Both acts shared a basic set design, colored in mottled, dirty-looking shades of gray. A circular platform was upstage in the middle, flanked by rectangular platforms with steps leading up from downstage left and right as well as two sets of stairs with smaller platforms that came up behind it. To the left and right were two-level structures that could be interior or exterior walls, with two entrances a piece and large black screens on the second level that were opaque when lit from the front but fairly clear when lit from behind. On the walls were black on black framed pictures of triangles, like the ones used to identify the various groups that the Nazis deemed undesirable. On the floor was a thick layer of mulch made of shredded tires in white and gray, looking like giant piles of ashes.

Costuming was fairly simple. All Nazis in both acts wore black hats with the insignias of the SS Totenkopf division and red Nazi armbands on black overcoats with red linings and snaps (that should have been blackened by costuming) along the rear vents. This was for all Nazis, regardless of their role, and, oddly, the only kapo in this production was put into this uniform, as well. (I assume that this was to avoid confusing the audience, not all of whom had this stuff shoved down their throats throughout their childhoods like some of us, though I suspect that their intelligence was being underestimated.) Prisoners were in stripes with red or pink triangles for the political and gay prisoners, respectively, and the yellow stars for the Jews. The two older survivor characters were in comfortable house clothes. A club scene in act II had a lot of colorful, though not quite period accurate, costuming. The women in that scene were mostly dressed in men’s clothing and it wasn’t clear if they were supposed to be butch, in drag, or were just supposed to be men.

Both acts also made use of the same four supernumeraries. All were local dancers who would be familiar to anyone who attends a lot of the local dance productions: Miriam Golomb, Nicole Johnson, Brandon Nguyen, and Joshua Rackliffe. Normally I wouldn’t mention supernumeraries but John McFall provided some choreography for the work and there is reason to comment on their performances, particularly in the second act.

In Act I, the circular platform was set with a desk with typewriter and a small table with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. This was the story of Krystyna Żywulska, a Jewish law student who, with her mother, escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and joined the Polish resistance. She was eventually captured by the Gestapo and managed to pass as a gentile so was held “only” as a political prisoner in Auschwitz and later Auschwitz II-Birkenau. While in the camps, she composed a number of poems that were shared by word of mouth among the other prisoners and a number of them were sung to common Polish tunes. One of her poems, “Apel,” caught the attention of a senior prisoner on the work detail who arranged to have her transferred to work detail sorting the confiscated goods of Jewish prisoners on their way to die in Birkenau. (Not in the opera, the person who did this first saved Żywulska’s life during a typhoid epidemic by arranging for her to have medical treatment and arranged the work detail posting when it was obvious that Żywulska would die in the work conditions in Auschwitz I. I find that pretty amazing.)

The opera tells this story by having Żywulska, played by soprano Maria Kanyova, struggling to tell her memories into a tape recorder at the request of an unnamed professor. She struggles with the task, not wanting to revisit the painful memories, but the memories of the people she survived push her forward. As she remembers, a younger version of her, played by Bryn Holdsworth, interacts with three of the people from her stories, played by Elise Quagliata, Gina Perregrino, and Jasmine Habersham. The music is poignant and the libretto for the various songs are based on Żywulska’s published poems. A lot of the melodies used for Żywulska’s songs seemed kind of familiar, though I’m not sure that they really were based on anything that I’d heard and I was too wrapped up in the work to really think about it.

The five sung roles were very well performed and the staging was excellent. The women supernumeraries looked to be singing along in some of the ensemble parts, though I could not really hear their voices. As such, I’m not sure if they were miming the words or just singing softly. The male supernumeraries served as the Nazis in this act.

From the first moment, when the women came on stage singing a wordless song that was repeated throughout the piece as a symbol of what could not be put into words, the music pierced through to my deepest emotional center and took hold until well after it ended. Some songs hit me incredibly hard, such as “Soldiers”, in which the young Żywulska sings “I do not need millions, just paper and a pencil…Letters are the only soldiers we need.” Or the “Sun and the Skylark”, in which characters sing hopefully about how the sun warms them as it did before the war, &c. There was also some levity in the music, such as the song of Miss Ziutka, a jazzy number about a woman whose attention to her typing makes her feel almost free. Also funny was a joke made by the older Żywulska, in which she explains that she made her false identity four years younger because if she had to be a goyishe woman, she was going to be at least be a younger one. (Unfortunately, the librettist used an incredibly derogatory Yiddish term for goyishe women here that literally translates to “unclean” or “dirty” that I wish would die out from the vocabulary of my people. If it came directly from Żywulska’s writing then it still should have been changed for the opera, as was much else in her writing.)

As I mentioned, this first act really got to me. My tear ducts were swollen through most of it and at times my lower lip quivered and I found my breath catching in sobs when the lights came down at the end. It was sublime and moving beyond belief: an encounter with the beautiful soul of the poet who endured such extreme horror and suffering.

If act I was an encounter with another soul, act II came across more as educational entertainment. Set in Berlin, it was the story of Gad Beck, a survivor played by Tom Key of Theatrical Outfit (and whose theater served as venue for this production), and his first love, Manfred Lewin, appearing in this telling as still 19 and played by Ben Edquist. Or at least, sort of. The focus of this act was on the treatment of LGBT people in the Shoah and, although I’m not certain, I don’t think that Beck nor Lewin were actually arrested under the infamous paragraph 175 that outlawed homosexuality. Instead, were both sent to camps for being Jewish. A quick check online suggests that Beck, who was only half Jewish, actually stayed outside of the camps until the very end, at which time he was rounded up for being part of an organization that helped to hide Jews.

The libretto is based around a handmade book that Lewin put together for Beck in the early days of the Nazi persecutions. It was full of little prompts to remember their shared experiences, both good and bad, during that time. He wrote little lyrical prose snippets to accompany simple illustrations. From that, and probably a few other sources, Scheer and Haggie put together a story about what Lewin went through. Some interesting bits included the story of Beck’s attempt to rescue Lewin when he and his family was rounded up for deportation and the song about their joys and antics at the underground dance halls where LGBT people could dance semi-freely. There were also two beautiful pieces: one about the sanctified power from within the heart that bolsters Lewin through the horrors, and one about loss and memory using some poignant imagery of stars vanishing from the sky.

The program notes state that this piece didn’t come easily to Heggie and I think that it shows. The role of Gad Beck is spoken and only Manfred Lewin sings. There are dramatically fewer songs than in act I and, although there are some that are moving, it feels like there’s more emotional distance between the artists and the material in this act than in the previous. It’s decent but it is a major disappointment after the brilliance of the first act. I suppose that I should be grateful, though, because if it had ended with act I then I’d probably have had to wait a bit before I could drive home. (I dilly dallied and left too late to take the train and was genuinely worried about whether I could drive home after act I).

If I was disappointed in the composition of act II, I was actually somewhat displeased with its production. Tom Key wasn’t able to deliver the same caliber of performance as the opera singers. I hate to say it, but he was actually a little bit the ham. I’m not sure that was his fault, though, because his character was having to react to Lewin, who was singing dramatically, and the dialog was kind of over the top. I think it would have worked better if Beck’s role was more of a narrator and Lewin a sort of ghost responding to Beck’s talking about his memories.

The use of dancers as supernumeraries was a bit of a problem here, as well. Some did well enough: Johnson was fairly believable in her minor roles, such as when she was a Nazi violently beating a man. She and Golomb did good work emoting with the women in act I, as well, when the two men merely had to walk around in overcoats and hats and look mean. Others were miscast: Rackliffe, whose dancing I generally enjoy, had to play a man named Joe who was shamed and beaten. There was some physical acting involved that he wasn’t quite up to. Nguyen’s stage presence wasn’t great, either. Although not as bad as when he was with Atlanta Ballet and often looked like he just didn’t want to be there, in this show he just didn’t have the gravitas to be an analog for Lewin, whose sung lines were the emotional core of this act.

I mentioned that McFall did choreography for this production. Although he did have a hand in the first act, it was pretty understated and mostly blended directly into the singing. His contributions were much more visible in act II, though. The dance-hall scene, for instance, was full of dance. His choreography for this wasn’t particularly focused on period accuracy nor was it particularly imaginative. There was nothing particularly impressive in the movements (nor should there have been) and it was a tad stiff and simplistic. He also choreographed duets for Rackliffe and Nguyen that were, likewise, stiff and a bit simplistic. Sometimes they were also out of place, such as a duet that they had standing behind Beck and Lewin, drawing eyes away when I felt the focus should have been on the two principals. This wasn’t a divertissement but, rather, part of the story telling. Even through the rest of the act, I think that the choreography asked for more attention that it really deserved both in terms of quality and its contribution to the story. I’ve only seen McFall’s choreography for Atlanta Ballet and I have to admit that I’ve never particularly liked it. I’m not sure that he was really the right person for this gig.

When the lights came down on this act, we gave them applause and, though I don’t really feel that it was standing ovation material, it was definitely a decent piece and I think everyone in it deserved recognition. Even if I’ve not had anything that nice to say about them above, nobody was really bad, even if they were perhaps miscast. Unfortunately, though, that wasn’t the end. There was a reprise of “Farewell to Auschwitz” from act I presented by all the performers from both stories in a line across the bottom of the stage. The piece of music is actually very good but this use of it was kind of awful. Aside from being kind of cheesy to end such a nuanced work in such an overt fashion, the song includes some lines stating that “it really happened” and came across in this context as a kind of bludgeon, as though saying, “Yes, you stupid, ill-read, uncultured audience members, this is based on a true story.” At one point they went from holdings hands to putting their arms around each other and I seriously thought they were about to start kicking out a chorus line. Tom Key finally sang at in this song, which was unfortunate because his is a voice is trained for musical theater rather than opera and, although he isn’t bad, he sounded harsh next to the trained operatic voices. And he sang his heart out, too, which made his voice come out over the more refined ones. While I think that act II was a disappointment, it was still a decent piece of work and worth seeing. I will, however, go so far as to say that I thought this little choral epilogue was crap and should definitely be cut from the work should it ever be staged again. Heck, if someone reads this before this run ends, it really should be cut from the next show.

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