Peter Sellars’ staging of two Bach cantatas as part of Lincoln Center’s “New Visions” series might not please musical purists, but Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s mesmerizing performance in them couldn’t be faulted. Her vocally lustrous, emotionally evocative portraits of two souls in extremis ultimately transcended the reductive nature of Sellars’ production.
In the first, Cantata No. 199, the mezzo-soprano enacted a woman’s journey from self-loathing through repentance and prostration before God to a vision of salvation in his arms. “My heart is swimming in blood for my teeming sins” goes the translation of the first lines, and Hunt Lieberson, clad in a gown that peculiarly evoked Italian portraits of the Madonna (a luminous light blue, with a long sash of faded scarlet), was duly doubled over in anguish and supplication, one length of that sash coiled around her neck as if self-strangulation was imminent.
As the cantata proceeded, the singer manipulated the two lengths of the red fabric in various ritualistic ways, but for all the natural grace that Hunt Lieberson brought to her movement, there were distractingly awkward moments as she twisted the fabric around her body or arrayed the swaths carefully around her kneeling form. There were also some overly literal-minded ones, as when she cradled a portion of the fabric in her arms as she sang of herself as “a grieving child.”
In Cantata No. 82, the singer was a dying woman, with an IV tube in one arm and another beneath her nose. Clad in a hospital gown, she lay prostrate as the cantata began (“Ich habe genung!” — “It is enough!” — is the cantata’s desperate refrain), reaching in a beseeching manner toward a glowing light bulb being manipulated by a black-clad figure above her. There was no avoiding the obviousness of the metaphor (don’t go into the light, Lorraine!), but Hunt Lieberson sang with such heartrending sensitivity to the emotional contours of the music that this performance ranks as one of the more unforgettable in recent memory.
Might it not have been just as unforgettable, if not more so, without the staging? I suspect so. The cantatas were written to be part of religious services, and the decision to turn them into small solo operas is controversial. In fact, at the reviewed performance, a brawl nearly broke out between a rudely vocal naysayer and an irritated critic.
The texts and music, beautifully played here by the Orchestra of Emmanuel, do indeed trace emotional and spiritual progressions, but they are not made more powerful by being tied to a specific person or predicament. In fact, for this listener, they lose some of their ethereal beauty when attached to gestures and behavior that remind us of the bodies that the narrators are so desperately eager to forsake.