Philip Venables’ opera based on Sarah Kane’s last play, 4.48 Psychosis, is the first musical adaptation of Kane’s work. The opera’s original 2016 London production is receiving its U.S. premiere January 5-12 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. It’s a marvel, one of the most original and impactful pieces of stagecraft I’ve seen. A multimedia collage of opera and drama, a cry for help from a ghost, a naked digital-age gesamtkunstwerk, a howling, raw, yet technologically advanced dive into the maelstrom of mental illness, this dark depiction of depression paradoxically energizes and even elevates.
Kane (1971-1999) was a noted playwright at 25 and a suicide at 28. A litany of treatments had failed to alleviate her suffering from severe depression. Her play 4.48 Psychosis is a subjective, expressionistic, and freeform depiction of depression that dispensed with traditional narrative and characterization. It premiered in 2000, after her death. Her plays have seen many revivals, especially in Europe, in the years since Kane herself departed the world’s narrative, one of countless victims of what poets once romanticized as “melancholy” and William Styron more accurately termed “darkness visible.” Through her work, and now through this marvelous adaptation, her own darkness remains starkly conspicuous.
Aggravatingly monotonous waiting-room music sets the tone before Gwen (soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand) struggles on stage. Hugging the wall of a sterile medical office, she sings a theme of gloomy half-step-down intervals that establish her somber state. Then the medical interventions and the epic struggle begin.
Though the five other characters have names, they serve – aside from the doctor – mostly as aspects of Gwen’s personality and internal monologue. The all-female cast boasts superb voices with different tonal qualities that help dimensionalize Gwen.
One of Venables’ most clever conceits has two percussionists in the orchestra bang out the process of Gwen’s therapy sessions. Alternately frightening and funny, their accents and rhythms accompany the doctor-patient dialogue that’s projected onto the featureless rear wall. Live and processed spoken word supplements the aria-chorales. Some of the music is stunningly beautiful, some wracked with pain.
The story, such as it is, barrels from drug to drug and one therapeutic technique to another. Gwen acts out extremes of anger and shame, attacking her alter egos, cutting herself, describing her proposed suicide with details that presaged Kane’s own.
After much struggle, descending half-tones give way to ascending minor thirds and Gwen achieves a moment of clarity. But the bliss of being “in my right mind” instead of feeling adrift in a meaningless life – “Now I am here” – can’t last.
Cold scenic design and simple, standardized costuming frame director Ted Huffman’s captivating staging. The mostly slow blocking suggests ballet and is as important as the music to this pulsing, complete work of art. the score, played by the ensemble Contemporaneous conducted by David Bloom, is intricately woven together with the voices and sound effects, whether it’s a faintly keening accordion, a trio of jabbing baritone saxophones, or a saw being driven through a piece of wood.
4.48 Psychosis the opera is a wordy piece, but words on a screen can’t do it justice. This Royal Opera House production is presented by PROTOTYPE and New Vision for Opera NYC and runs through 12 January 2019. Visit the Baruch Performing Arts Center website for schedule and tickets.