Dead again: Guerilla Opera revives Vores’ “No Exit” with dramatic power and psychological insight

September 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm

By David Wright

Aliana de la Guardia (Estelle) and, in background, Jonas Budris (Garcin) and Christina English (Inez) in Andy Vores’s “No Exit” at Guerilla Opera. Photo: Stephanie J.Patalano

The biggest laugh in Guerilla Opera’s new production of No Exit came before the performance began, as baritone Jonathan Nussman, imposingly in character as the Valet, admonished the audience to silence all cell phones and to “look around and locate the nearest exit.”

After that, only the occasional ironic snort was heard  as the drama’s three condemned souls in hell’s Second Empire drawing room tempted, taunted, and tormented each other for nearly an hour and a half.

Andy Vores’s musical adaptation of the one-act play by Jean-Paul Sartre was commissioned and premiered by Guerilla Opera in 2008. The company is reviving the work, which runs through Sunday at the Zack Box at Boston Conservatory.

By the end of Thursday evening’s opening performance, it was clear that the ensemble of four singers and four instrumentalists, armed with Vores’s haunting score, had performed the seemingly impossible feat of turning existentialism into opera—or if not some people’s idea of opera, at least a gripping evening of music and theater.

Written in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Sartre’s play is a dour thing, sort of a philosophy lecture in drag.  It takes resourceful actors to give it life on the stage, and the singing actors of Thursday’s performance brought a lot to the table.

But the real star of the evening was Vores’s musical setting, which supplied the psychological kick that Sartre’s words (in Stuart Gilbert’s somewhat dated 1946 English translation, not credited in the program) could only suggest.

Working in dry brush strokes as if accompanying a Noh drama, saxophonist Kent O’Doherty, violist Gabriella Diaz, cellist Nicole Cariglia, and especially percussionist Mike Williams unobtrusively but compellingly evoked the emotional world of the damned—the queasiness, the anxiety, the rage, and even, in some memorable moments, the jaunty good cheer of denial.

Circular repeating figures in the instrumental parts echoed the characters circling each other on stage, action that was both psychologically apt and necessitated by this production’s in-the-round setting, with a single row of chairs lining each side of the square stage.

In director Nathan Troup’s staging and Julia Noulin-Mérat’s design, even the drama’s three symbolic sofas (in this case a divan and two armchairs) to which the characters periodically retreat, and the fateful locked door itself, were all on casters and rolling around the stage, heightening the Sartrean feeling of nausea and disorientation.

In a venue where the audience was literally a few feet away from the singers, articulation and intimate expression counted for more than vocal projection.  The characters’ vocal lines tended to follow the pitch and inflections of speech, with notable exceptions such as bits of flirty coloratura for the sexy Estelle and disjunct writing with huge interval leaps for the intense and aggressive Inez.

As the cynical journalist Garcin, tenor Jonas Budris sang with crystalline diction and ringing high notes that were almost too effortless, given the character’s psychological state.  For most of the evening, Budris prowled the stage in a semi-crouch apparently meant to convey world-weariness, or the pacing of a caged animal, one wasn’t sure which.  It would have helped if the singer’s shaggy, youthful good looks had been modified a bit to make him look more Garcin and less garçon.

For the ungrateful (and stereotypical) role of the predatory lesbian Inez, Christina English brought an agile mezzo-soprano voice that was solid in all registers, and also the courage to play the hatchet-faced harpy for much of the evening, giving the audience only brief (but affecting) glimpses of her character’s vulnerabilities.

When these two rather repellent characters were joined in the room by the bubbly Estelle, one could almost hear a sigh of relief in the tiny theater.  Sartre inserted Estelle as a temptation to the other two, Vores wrote her role to be alluring, and singer Aliana de la Guardia delivered in a flexible, expressive soprano that no doubt excited the “protective” instincts of many in the audience.

The more the horror, then, as the drama unfolded, secrets were revealed, and it became known that Estelle’s sin—murdering the child of her illicit affair—made the sins of the others pale by comparison.

The discomfort of knowing and being known, prolonged for eternity—that is what prompts Garcin’s famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” by which Sartre meant something more like “Hell is The Other” than Gilbert’s unintentionally funny translation “Hell is other people.”  Fortunately, the opera’s climactic escape-or-stay moment dramatized this idea better than any prose translation could.

In Sartre’s play, the role of the Valet is mainly a device to usher the other characters onstage and set the scene.  It can be played for obsequious, Jeeves-like comedy, or as something more sinister.  Composer Vores opted for the latter, and baritone Nussman, tall and vocally powerful, left no doubt who was in charge.

What do people wear in hell?  According to costume designer Lara De Bruijn, it’s like what they wore in life, except it’s all gray and bordered with shiny black flames.  Similarly, Daniel B. Chapman’s lighting and Noulin-Mérat’s set looked shadowy, dingy, and drained of color.

Still, one wonders what today’s equivalent of Sartre’s Second Empire parlor, with its appalling and unremovable bronze sculpture on the mantel, would be.  Surely it would involve shag carpet.

No Exit will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.  Talk-back sessions will follow the Friday night and Saturday afternoon performances.  guerillaopera.com; 866-615-2723.

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