Wednesday , May 29 2024
Wende in 'The Promise' at the Prototype Festival 2024
Wende in 'The Promise' (Raymond van Olphen)

Prototype Festival Reviews (NYC): ‘Chornobyldorf’ and ‘The Promise’

The Prototype Festival is known for adventurous and outstanding programming from around the world. Two musical productions at this year’s 11th edition, Chornobyldorf from Ukraine and The Promise from The Netherlands, live up to those standards and beyond.

Chornobyldorf: An Archeological Opera in Seven Novels

As strange as it is huge, Chornobyldorf is a masterpiece of experimental opera. It has an international pedigree but is Ukrainian through and through, from the names on the program to the blue-and-yellow (and red-and-black) flags proudly displayed during the bows. Though created before the Russian invasion of 2022, the production has especial poignancy now, and it’s raising funds for the relief and advocacy nonprofit Razom.

Photo credit: Valeriia Landar

This two-hour-plus nonstop opera is a technological as well as an artistic marvel. Voices and acoustic instruments are amplified and put through effects to create hurricanes of sound. (It gets very loud at times.) The seven scenes or “novels” draw on mythology (Orpheus and Eurydice, Elektra); religion (a startling evocation of an Orthodox mass, complete with chants in Ukrainian and Latin; Ukrainian folk and choral traditions; ballet; musique concrète; robot imagery; and extravagant costumes as one might see in grand opera, along with stately nudity that reads as both primal and modern.

The pace, too, is stately, even glacial, yet the opera moves from scene to scene with a seething momentum. Noting a big screen, I anticipated English supertitles, but none were needed – the stories reel out through movement, staging, lighting, and especially sound. Instead, the screen displays video footage and projections that parallel or comment on the live action.

CHORNOBYLDORF. Repetion. Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, Ukraine, 2020. Photo credit: Artem Galkin

The show’s imagery and props suggest a battered remnant of humanity reacting to half-understood cultural artifacts. But Chornobyldorf is nothing like the dystopias running rampant in today’s popular culture. It’s a titanic work of high art that needs no referents.

Some of the wordless vocalizing is so transformed into exquisite noise that you have to look at the singers’ mouths to understand that the sounds originate in human throats. Elsewhere, the singing is resolutely human, evoking Western opera, Ukrainian choirs, and liturgical music. There’s plenty of musical-instrument action, too, such as the “Little Accordion Girl” scene centering on instruments no one knows how to play, and the spontaneous marching band that erupts during the final “Saturnalia.”

Elsewhere there’s just raw pain, as in the Orpheus and Eurydice sequence.

One leaves the show wondering at the dizzying talent and energy one has just witnessed. I took pages and pages of notes during the show but Chornobyldorf defies easy description. It must simply be experienced, and it is an experience like no other. See it at La MaMa through January 20.

The Promise

Dutch chanteuse Wende, together with collaborator Isobel Waller-Bridge, have composed something perhaps unique in the history of the stage: a blistering songspiel asserting the validity, indeed the nobility, of a childfree life.

The Promise takes us on a carnival ride of emotions through a swirl of musical styles and techniques. Ultimately it depicts an effervescent landscape founded on a strong measure of confident self-assertion. Wende’s magnetism is a mix of vigor and vulnerability, swagger and soulfulness.

One could create a party game out of trying to identify influences on this hybrid theater-concert. I came up with David Bowie, Ute Lemper, Jacques Brel, Liz Phair, and Yoko Ono. My companion named others (though we both thought of Lemper). One earlier review called the show a cross between Lady Gaga and Fleabag.

What all this signifies, though, is not derivativeness but synthesis – a post-creation of theatrical and musical elements into something new.

Wende in 'The Promise' – Prototype Festival 2024
Wende in ‘The Promise’ (Raymond van Olphen)

The cost of trying to make something truly original is often self-conscious artsiness. Wende and her three talented backup musicians mostly avoid this. The songs flow one into the next, more like a roller coaster than a train. As the flayed-open (yet fully controlled) psyche of Wende’s character is revealed, taut themes abound. “What if your story is not the story you’ve been dreaming of?” How to approach the idea that children and family aren’t the only valid – or productive – human scenario? Anger: “I’m a lonely bitch.” Courage: to bathe in “a dark black pool at the edge of the island.” Nihilism: “Go erase her name.”

Through it all, Wende has us in the palm of her keyboard-pounding hand. As the musicians churn through strains of rock, punk, musical theater, cabaret, blues, and the avant-garde, Wende inhabits the whole in-the-round space – this way, that way, climbing into the seats, and leading the audience in wry singalongs and her quartet in a hypnotic a cappella number. The songs are both artful and elemental, propulsive and moody, the sound full but never oppressive.

Fraught yet glowing, The Promise celebrates the individual human spirit, as Chornobyldorf does the spirit of a nation. Both are part of the Prototype Festival’s 11th season, which runs through January 21. See The Promise through January 14 at HERE.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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