In a Waterlogged City, Operatic Puppets and Shadows on a Curtain
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN Published: December 3, 2008
VENICE — By Monday the city was knee deep under water, freakish winds pushing the high tide into the streets and piazzas, the worst flood here in two decades. Water buses couldn’t dock because piers were submerged. A gray haze, the familiar Venetian mood music, shrouded everything. Someone rowed a boat across St. Mark’s Square.
There followed the predictable finger pointing by local politicians, who have battled for years over Moses, a $5.5 billion tidal barrier system for the lagoon that is supposed to be finished in 2010 at the earliest.
By chance a watery hero arrived in town. Over the weekend, just before the city became nearly impassable, Monteverdi’s “Return of Ulysses” had a short, magical run at the ancient Malibran Theater, near the Rialto Bridge, slightly off the beaten path.
The production, a taut 90-minute reduction of the original, is devised by William Kentridge, the South African artist, with the Handspring Puppet Company and the Ricercar Consort, a small period-instrument ensemble from Belgium. The show is a decade-old affair, touring irregularly since 1998. (It stopped a few years ago in New York.) This was its debut here, a homecoming in the city where Monteverdi staged the opera’s premiere almost four centuries ago.
Meanwhile a video Mr. Kentridge devised for the fire curtain at Venice’s main opera house, La Fenice, was unveiled. Made to be seen as audiences arrive and the orchestra tunes up, it will be shown over the coming weeks before various operas.
It’s a Rube Goldberg sort of concept on film, sneakily poetic. A small, related exhibition (organized, like the curtain video, by a local curator, Francesca Pasini) opened at the same time at Palazzetto Tito. It remains on view through mid-January.
Shrugging off the dankness and the usual travails of dealing with Italian bureaucracy, Mr. Kentridge sat the other morning before a ham sandwich in the Fenice cafe, waiting for the video’s trial run. “Even the ground you stand on isn’t stable here,” he said. He was responding to a question about whether his work, which dwells frequently on concepts like uncertainty and indirection, relates to this city, of all cities. He gestured toward the rain.
In a catalog essay for the exhibition Mr. Kentridge put the same thought this way: “Insofar as there is a central logic behind the whole project,” he wrote about the Fenice curtain video — although he could have been talking about “Ulysses” too — “it is the argument of the fragility of coherence, in which the coherence and disintegration of images refers also to other fragilities and breaks.”
Other fragilities and breaks. Mr. Kentridge has made various works that allude to his native country’s apartheid legacy. But fragilities and breaks could mean Venice too, never mind whether that’s what he had in mind when he came up with the sentence.
He is now 53. New Yorkers may recall his “Magic Flute,” staged in Brooklyn not long ago. It was, visually speaking, sublime. Drawings of sunbeams, rhinos doing back flips and architectural diagrams unfolded and dissolved in midair. Mr. Kentridge is known in the art world for charcoal drawings, which he often animates in films whose melancholy humor is dry and temperature cool. Animated, the drawings mutate, assuming one shape, then another.
A video projected onto a screen behind the singers and puppets in “Ulysses” turns a highway into a hospital corridor. Flowers sprout on vines that transform into ancient Greek lovers. Antique temples and modern high-rises crumble, then reconstitute themselves, leaving ghostly palimpsests. At one instant an angiogram suggests the hero’s broken heart. A different medical procedure segues into a drawing of the open sea, where a childlike boat bobs on cartoon waves.
Jason Goodwin, who wrote the mystery “The Bellini Card,” suggests that Venice gave English two words, innuendo and incognito. It’s a nice thought. Ulysses is a bit like Venice, if you think about it. He was cunning; he also liked disguises. Mr. Kentridge’s version of the opera, on the other hand, stresses Ulysses’ vulnerability.
And like Ulysses, Venice famously broods on the heavy toll of history; it suffers the humiliation of invaders, who these days never stop arriving (not even in freezing, rainy late November or December). Convalescent but vainglorious, like the Homeric hero, the city dreams of its own bygone splendor while facing the prospect of a watery grave.
As it happens, the Ricercar Consort musicians, a half-dozen of them, sit enthroned on a semicircular platform, like the audience in an operating theater, with a puppet Ulysses, supine on a gurney, below. He reclines there throughout the opera: Ulysses, like Venice, the suffering lion.
Adrian Kohler, who with Basil Jones directs Handspring, said one evening after a dress rehearsal that working with a new cast (the exceptional one here includes Romina Basso, a heartbreaking Penelope, and Julian Podger as Ulysses) always takes some getting used to, for the puppeteers as well as the singers, who must learn to accustom themselves not just to handling but also to looking at the puppets, rather than at the audience. By contrast, Mr. Kentridge’s video for the opera, from the moment the production was conceived, instantly opened up “a whole new world of possibilities,” Mr. Kohler said.
Indeed it does. The audience scans the stage, turning from the video to the musicians to the puppeteers and singers, who seem, in the delicate way they support the slender hands of the puppets, like supplicants in a painted Deposition. Their tenderness can make you weep, every element relying on the other, altered by the allusive, multimedia mix — and save for the music itself, otherwise incomplete.
One senses Mr. Kentridge’s “fragility of coherence.” It is the idea also animating the Fenice curtain video, which began with the artist contemplating an orchestra tuning up: chaos, cohering around the oboe’s A, then disintegrating again. Mr. Kentridge contrived black tissue-paper sculptures. Bits of the paper were attached to rough wire armatures on turntables like lazy susans.
These were purposefully crude devices. Inert, they look inchoate. Mr. Kentridge’s art often comes to life, as it were, only when it moves. In this case, when the turntables revolve, the bits of paper — at one point, and only one — form faces and figures. One sculpture reveals itself to be a singer, belting out a note; another is a conductor, baton raised; yet another, a horse. The figures then dissolve once the turntables shift.
In the video Mr. Kentridge slowly rotates the sculptures, declining to hide the artifice. (You see a hand operating a little crank.) Until the shapes snap into focus, viewers struggle to figure out what they are; it’s impossible not to try. But, as at the hands of fate (the prologue of Monteverdi’s “Ulysses,” one is tempted to recall here, deals at length with man’s submission to fate), we find meaning imposed upon us. It’s not our will that matters in the end. Imagination can’t suffice. Fatalist Venetians might relate to these concepts as well in Mr. Kentridge’s art.
“Time changes,” he said, in the cafe. “Like love and fortune. We make ourselves out of fragments we can’t really control.” Polishing off his sandwich, he excused himself to head downstairs. Outside it was gloomy. The rain was picking up.Inside, his new video already filled the immense stage curtain, bathing Fenice’s glittery auditorium in a bright white light.