How vast is the space between the self and its image? How do we map the distance between one’s inner being and the parade of shifting facades, the varying masks we don at home, at work, and on the street, simply in the name of getting through the day? What about the more stealthy masks directed inward, the kinds we don’t recognize as masks, the tricks we play on ourselves through the stories of social expectation we internalize and mistake for our own desires, until the day we don’t?
How vast is that space? Vast enough for an opera.
This is at least one way to describe the thematic terrain of “Persona,” Keeril Makan’s enthralling new chamber opera, based on the iconic film by Ingmar Bergman. It is also a terrain notoriously slippery. One of this opera’s many virtues may be its faithfulness to the film’s narrative ambiguity, its resistance, as Susan Sontag described in a famous essay, to being summarized without constraining its wide field of possible meanings.
But the work’s outward frame is at least easy enough to describe: Elisabet Vogler, a famous actress, has fallen mysteriously mute, and a nurse named Alma is assigned to guide her recovery. When the patient’s silence persists, Alma fills the void with her own anguished confessions, inner urges, and doubts about the path leading into her own bourgeois future. A strange magnetism develops between them.
Makan’s opera had its premiere last fall at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, in a production by Beth Morrison directed by Jay Scheib (who also fashioned the libretto), and it was reprised on Thursday night at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall. This deft staging uses video in an intriguing way, as the performers are filmed by a crew at work in plain view of the audience, and the footage appears projected in real time on an enormous screen. One can choose to watch the action directly on stage, or its projected image.
The conceit is more than just a handy solution to the hall’s tricky sight lines, or a nod to the work’s celluloid origins, its dance of art and artifice. It also amplifies the piece’s central themes of mediation and the self — while at the same time inviting one to think critically about the ways we increasingly choose to view the world through a digital scrim.
Makan’s vividly imagined post-minimalist score does not try to compete with the libretto’s strange drama or its Gordian knots of meaning, but rather holds the work’s many vectors in a kind of productive tension, and contributes to them with a kind of additive grace. Indeed, if silence is coded here as a true protector of the self, and speech is its betrayal, then what is song? In this parable of a parable, it becomes a kind of alternate third stream of expression, the vehicle of an authenticity denied to speech but given to silence’s mirror image, which is here of course music. In this sense Makan and Scheib’s “Persona” does not merely adapt the Bergman film for the operatic stage. It broadens its fields of resonance.
The Either/Or ensemble performed incisively under the direction of Evan Ziporyn. And at the heart of this production was Amanda Crider’s nuanced performance as Alma. She conveyed with often-gleaming vocalism the slow unmasking of a self. Her role is a study in fantasies of escape through fissures of identity, and through manifold desires for otherness: other selves, other futures, other pasts. Aliana de la Guardia and Joshua Jeremiah capably took up smaller roles. And Lacey Dorn’s sensual portrayal of the mute Elisabet was in its own way pointedly eloquent, showing how much more resides in silence than simply the absence of sound.
All told, “Persona” is a potent new work, one that addresses the mind as well as the senses. One could say that the audience member sits silently, listening and watching like Elisabet, invited to search this parable and this set with its projection screen and angled mirrors for something they might recognize. This opera about masks is also about what lies behind them.
Music by Keeril Makan, libretto by Jay Scheib after the Bergman film
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, May 5