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Symphonie Fantastique

Created by Basil Twist

Off Broadway, Puppetry with Music
Runs through 6.17.18
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue


by Ran Xia on 4.5.18

Symphonie FantastiqueChristopher O'Reily in Symphonie Fantastique. Photo by Richard Termine.
 

BOTTOM LINE: Basil Twist offers a unique interpretation of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique with a puppetry dreamscape.

Composer Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is a timeless work of art. Supposedly written under the influence of opium, the symphony for a 90-piece orchestra was the result of Berlioz’s unrequited love. (There’s a happy sort of ending: Berlioz did win over the lady’s heart. She was impressed, utterly moved by his genius, and ultimately married him.) Premiering in December 1830, the work has since immortalized its creator, and has inspired generations of artists who share his affinity for the power of imagination. Basil Twist’s unique interpretation of this romantic musical journey, being remounted 20 years after its original production, involves a luminous dreamscape of puppetry—in a massive water tank no less!—and Christopher O’Reily’s rendition of all five movements of the symphony on a grand piano. As a classically trained pianist myself, seeing this piece is a dream come true.

The first movement ("Reveries – Passions") represents the first stage of lovesickness. Twist accompanies it with a mystic flutter of oceanic creatures made of translucent fabrics: jellyfishes pulsating in pastel-colored water. A recurring motif that resembles coral recalls painter Henri Matisse’s fantastic cutout works. In Movement II ("A Ball"), the music transitions into a joyous waltz, while strange creatures materialize in front of spinning pinwheels, dancing feathers that look like the eyelashes of a goddess.

Movement III ("Scene in the Fields") is the slowest portion of the piece. It begins with solitary beams of light that cut across the opaque water. With less fabric and fewer smooth edges, the visuals of the third as well as the following movements become more rigid and angular. The shortest Movement IV ("March to the Scaffold") is like a tremendous storm, a disturbed, feverish illusion induced by psychedelics. The final movement ("Dream of the Night of the Sabbath") is a curious vision of all things strange and fascinating. The sound and the images blend into each other and are at once alluring and diabolical.

Mr. O’Reily is a masterful performer, but I still missed the complex quality of sound required to experience the full effect of the symphony. Even the piano, the emperor of instruments, cannot replicate the sound of the wilderness (especially the savage percussion in Movements IV and V). The production does, however, preserve the essence of Symphonie fantastique, specifically in its relentless experimental spirit. It zaps you with a high voltage of abstraction, which might present a challenge for audiences who expect something easy to digest.

While I relished the communal experience of intellectual stimulation provided by this production, I also question its accessibility and relevance. Every single technical aspect of the show is impressive, but it does not seem to resonate with me beyond being an exciting way to experience Berlioz’s music. I applaud its creativity and craftsmanship, although it also seems self-celebratory and sacrifices substance for form. However, if you are energized by the opportunity to discover a story as it unfolds, and make it your own, then this is the very thing for you.

(Symphonie Fantastique plays at HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, through June 17, 2018. The running time is 55 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:30, Saturdays at 4 and 8:30, and Sundays a 4. Tickets are $35 – $100 and are available at here.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)

 

Symphonie Fantastique was created by Basil Twist, based on a symphony by Hector Berlioz. Lighting Design is by Andrew Hill. Stage Manager is Liz Haroian.

The cast is Kate Brehm, Ben Elling, Andy Gaukel, Jonothon Lyons, and Lake Simons, featuring pianist Christopher O'Reily.