Laura Schwendinger's Artemisia

Artemisia self portrait

Laura Schwendinger's Artemisia

9 March 2019 /Reports

Julian Wachter is doing important work at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel. On Thursday, and again tonight, March 9 at 7PM Laura Schwendinger’s opera is being presented by fabulous singers and musicians.

the singers are wonderful:
Heather Buck – Susanna; Augusta Caso – Artemisia Gentileschi
Oliver Mercer – Agostino Tassi/Elder 1; Christopher Burchett – Cosimo di Medici/Elder 2
Richard Troxell – Tomasso/Oculist

It recieved this nice mention:

NY Times (scroll down past Zorn)

Laura Schwendinger/Ginger Strand’s *Artemisia* is the opera of the moment. There is something Tarantino-like in the operatic juxtaposition of two dramas that come from Artemisia Gentileschi’s body of work–Susannah & Judith. Artemisia & Susannah are conflated, but Artemisia never got to strike the decisive blow that Judith struck. She did better than Susannah, but had to endure torture for her testimony to hold up in court.

The opening is, as CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM says in the Times, unrelenting and even claustrophobic, and we do not merely endure that, we find it cleansing, a purge,

an **antidote to the synecdoche**–


Has there been a moment in history when conscience has been severed so cleanly from action, when the two parties acting on behalf of each have been so alienated from one another? The subjects of Gentileschi’s paintings tell us, “yes”, and Laura’s music dramatizes the degree to which our happy-high-marginal-tax-rate-strong-union-post-war childhoods had been the exception.

We are now on to what someone described as ***high walls and tinted windows***.

I have some wonkish nuance to add to the Times review. I play the first and last notes on theorbo, as the work is framed by Strozzi’s fantastic, echt Baroque aria, *Che si può fare?*. I am regaled with the intense experience of the opera during my idle hour in between, and my mind puts things together.

The aria points us to the sensation of falling, sadly & inexorably. What happens in the Strozzi aria is amplified in Schwedinger’s opera, and a high point for me was hearing Schwendinger’s achingly poignant choral setting of the words *Che si può fare?*.

*Che si può fare?* seems very simple:

The bass line, relentlessly:

D, C, Bb, A…..


It is a harmonic mobius strip.

i, v\6, iv\6, V,
i, v\6, iv\6, V, i……etc. That is unremarkable. It is a fixture–a Phrygian cadence, it’s called.

Yet, at a certain point, Strozzi pulls the rug out from under us:

i, v\6, iv\6, III\6, VI\6, iv\6, V, i……

The major V is replaced by III\6, the i is replaced by VI\6, but preserving the bass line.

The progression gives us hopeless, desperately sad retrogressing fauxbordon (// first inversion chords) being relieved *caught* by 2 *progressions*:

iv\6–V, and the following V–i

In the anomalous iterations the fauxbourdon is prolonged, the relief delayed. There is a rhythmic aspect of the harmonic change. The switch from retrogression to progression puts an accent on the beginning of earch iteration of the bass lined. Retrogressing into the repeat erases that accent.

Note: the bass line never changes.

The effect is not easily put into words. We are accustomed to being caught, (tagged “safe”) at the ends of the little phrases by the major V chord with its leading tone, and the expected resolution to the i chord; but in the anomalous iterations we fall for an extra time span. The net was removed, but there is another net 4 bars further down.

Laura’s opera does a post-tonal version of falling and being caught. As CORINNA da FONSECA says, the beginning is brutal, unrelenting, but somewhere near the golden mean, Schwendinger lands in open harmonies. The moment is quite glorious, and sets up her gut wrenching choral setting of Che si può fare?.

Here is video from the workshope performance a few years ago, Julian Wachter is conducting:

2016 Workshop Performance

RSF’s Marsyas Productions included Laura Schwendinger in it’s 2012 musical, Sounding Beckett, and will support the recording of Artemisia later this year.

–William Anderson