BWW Reviews: TOXIC PSALMS New York Premiere
One moment, the performers march militantly across the stage and screech like sirens, the next, they sing Pergolesi's galant Stabat Mater like sweet seraphim. The thirty-one performers of TOXIC PSALMS, the latest production created by conductor Karmina Šilec and her ensemble CARMINA SLOVENICA, have certainly created a provocative pastiche. After an initial run in Berlin last year, TOXIC PSALMS played as part of the 2015 PROTOTYPE FESTIVAL, marking the work's North American debut.
New York has been hungry for more experimental works this season. The New York Times review of TOXIC PSALMS mentions Peter Sellar's recently revived production of the Bach ST. MATTHEW PASSION at the Park Avenue Armory as context for other pieces that have used the chorus in "new" ways. Peter Sellar's use of the chorus in that piece, however, was really rather #basic and banal by comparison. The Times also compares the extended vocal techniques that CARMINA SLOVENICA uses to those popularized by Meredith Monk that are now joyously embraced by groups like ROOM FULL OF TEETH.
But to describe CARMINA SLOVENICA by comparison, the best candidates are theater and dance companies that focus on devised, ensemble work. When watching TOXIC PSALMS, I couldn't help but wonder what Pina Bausch would think. In my mind, CARMINA SLOVENICA is the musical answer to Bausch's groundbreaking concept of Tantztheater. In TOXIC PSALMS, stunning choral singing is central to the mise-en-scène. Karmina Šilec's has developed a practice and method of Choregie that seems to be the musical answer to Tantztheater.
Divided into eight tableaux that bleed seamlessly together, TOXIC PSALMS brings together music from Medieval to modern times, all offering meditations on the collective experience. Though community - particularly as represented through the chorus - is typically seen as a positive force, TOXCIS PSALMS focuses on the idea that "everyone and everything that man creates can be turned against him if used without respect for life." The performers often act en masse, other times individuals are isolated and we take voyeuristic delight in their vulnerabilities. The young women's confidence (the eldest in the ensemble is 23) at confronting difficult issues is truly captivating.
But, the beauty of TOXIC PSALMS is not only in the fresh-faced femme fatales that compose the cast. Belinda Radulovic's sleek costumes and Andrej Hajdinjak's stark lighting create eerie and elegant effects. The production proves that a company doesn't need to spend millions on all the trappings of grand opera to create a visual world that is stylish and captivating.
Despite the provocative nature of the piece - themes like sexual violence are explored both symbolically and through direct and open monologues about it - the true highlight is the singing. Indeed, Šilec has helped to shape these young women into crack musicians. Hopefully CARMINA SLOVENICA'S first performances in New York will not be their last.