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Review: THE BLACK CAT at the O'Neill Theater Long Beach

Review: THE BLACK CAT at the O'Neill Theater Long Beach

THE BLACK CAT is multimedia stage work that tells Edgar Allan Poe's gothic story with action, music, dance and projections. On January 19, 2019, Long Beach Opera presented its United States premiere at the Beverly O'Neill Theater. Tenor Aaron Sheehan sang the long solo tenor part of the Narrator on short notice, because the original singer had been unable to get his visa for the USA in order due to the government shut down.

Viennese conductor and organist Martin Haselböck conceived the idea for the piece and conducted the ensemble of which he is artistic director, the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra. His concept involved combining the music of Bach with that of modern songwriter David Silvian and that worked well for telling the Poe's tale, but it was the Baroque instrumentalists who stole the most honors.

Musica Angelica's Concertmaster Ilia Korol and Violin II YuEun Kim, Violist Ashley Salinas, and oboist Steven Hammer were absolutely incredible, playing perfect counterpoint during scene after scene. Although their playing was more in the nature of accompaniment, Cellist Alexa Haines-Pilon and Bassist Malachai Bandy added much to the sound of this marvelous ensemble led by Organist and Conductor Haselbröck.

After each Bach piece, one of Silvian's thoughtfully conceived songs brightened up the scholastic mood created by the older music and added some modern thoughts to Poe's story. In it, the nameless man is led astray by drink and his obsession with the actions of a black cat who, had he not harmed it, might never have wished him evil.

Poe pointed out the dangers of alcohol. Virgil Widrich's film projections, which were painted and animated by Oleg Prodeus, showed the audience visual interpretations of the man's drunken visions. The projected images of the burning house were a study in filmed fire and the scene in which the walled up body is revealed simply jumped out of the background screen.

Writing in the program, theater and film director Frank Hoffmann describes the stage design as "foremost a film-moving images, scenes and stories. In the third dimension, the singer, the dancers, and the musicians merge with the virtual space ... to become one total spatial experience." In THE BLACK CAT, Hoffmann kept his audience involved and entertained for the piece's 80-minute duration.

Although the Narrator tells of a man who is quite obviously insane, the audience accepts the Narrator's claim that the man is sane, even though he gouges out the cat's eye and later kills it. When he tells of the man murdering his wife with an axe "by accident," the audience realizes the man's mental state. Is a nineteenth century man guilty of a crime he does not understand? He contemplates eternity and the two violinists and the violist play an incredibly intricate trio. Tenor Sheehan adds to the pathos of his situation when he sings of the tortures of the damned.

Actor and assistant director Jacques Schiltz acted the part as Sheehan sang it. Dancers Sylvia Camarda and Jean Guillaume Weis portrayed the murderer's pre-execution dreams. Weis's interpretation of a cat thoroughly amused all of us who know how cats act around their often unrewarded caretakers.

Katharina Polheim's dark coats and hats allowed the members of the orchestra to merge with the projections and become part of the scenic design at the beginning and the end of the show. Her husband and wife looked as ordinary as they should have. Her black cat wore an ordinary black shirt and pants. He created his memorable feline character with cat-like movements.

Sheehan sang the Bach in the original German, and there were titles at both sides above the stage, but they did not translate all the text. There were no titles for Silvian's songs. The only other scheduled performance of this unusual work will be a matinee on Sunday, January 20, 2019. THE BLACK CAT is a fascinating new work and I hope to be able to hear and see it again in the near future.

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Maria Nockin worked at the Metropolitan Opera in New York while attending  Fordham University across the street from Lincoln Center. At the same time, she studied voice, piano, and violin... (read more about this author)

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