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Spring has arrived and there’s music in the air, but San Diegans could be forgiven for imagining the ferrous tang of blood beneath the sweet smell of jasmine.
The time of year usually associated with new life has become a regular bloodbath on San Diego stages, with three new productions that feature heinous acts of violence at the center of the drama.
Despite the seeming contradiction between the season and the theme, spring has been a time for showcasing violence onstage since the origin of the theater.
The City Dionysia, an enormous festival held in ancient Athens in the early spring, brought great fame to writers like Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, whose cycles of bloody tragedies were performed as part of a play-writing competition. And yet these tragedies, in which family members slaughter one another with impunity and occasionally get ripped to shreds by frenzied mobs, had a higher purpose than simple entertainment. They were the apotheosis of Greek culture, law and religion.
San Diego Opera’s production of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s hypnotic ”Murder in the Cathedral,” is very much in the tradition of a Greek tragedy. This infrequently performed piece, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s verse drama about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in Canterbury cathedral in 1170, features a chorus of women from Canterbury, who serve the function of a Greek chorus by providing exposition, mood and tone with their harmonically complex, polyphonic singing. They remain onstage throughout the opera, silently witnessing Beckett’s temptation, and highlighting the dramatic tension with premonitions of violence and outright terror when Beckett commands his priests to open the cathedral doors to knights that have been sent by the king to kill him.
The title of the opera tells you how the story ends, but watching the mesmerising Ferruccio Furlanetto as Beckett, wracked with doubt about the purity of his own motives, drives home the central conflict between the divine law that Beckett strives to uphold and the laws of man, the same conflict at the center of Sophocles’s “Antigone,” written nearly twenty-four centuries earlier.
A very different sort of murder occurs in a church in the Old Globe’s sublimely silly new musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and it’s only one of eight deaths that must occur before before the ambitious protagonist Monty Navarro can become the ninth earl of Highhurst and win his true love.
The victims of Monty’s machinations are all played by the athletically manic Jefferson May — all eight of them. May’s bravura performance as the doomed members of the D’Ysquith family has garnered rave reviews, and the show itself, with its Gilbert and Sullivanesque score and Wildean social satire, does a remarkable job of getting the audience to sympathize with the murderous Monty rather than with the useless D’Ysquiths heirs, which is reminiscent of the plotting protagonist of Aristophanes’s comedy “The Clouds,” who attempts to turn his layabout son into someone capable of arguing his creditors out of their money by sending him to a famous school for philosophers. Aristophanes might never have done better than second place in the comedy category at City Dionysia, but his biting satire of Socrates’ philosophical pedagogy was considered by Plato to be partially responsible for Socrates’ trial and execution. What greater accolade can a comedy receive than shifting public opinion?
The double-edged sword of public fascination is at the center of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical “Assassins.” The show traces the actions of successful and unsuccessful presidential assassins back to John Wilkes Booth and draws distinctions between murderers and assassins, whose political ambitions are frequently overshadowed by a desire for immortality.
The Cygnet Theater’s remarkable production brings a refreshing evenness of tone to the show, which leaps decades to tell the assassins’ stories and highlights the similarities and differences between the murderers and would-be killers. While the audience is encouraged to laugh at the assassins’ petty, vainglorious and occasionally pathetic motivations, the play literally and figuratively points a gun at the audience to address the culpability of the public — and its endless curiosity about murderers — for atrocities motivated by fame.
The sensitive portrayal of the people that most of us know solely as killers would seem to have less in common with ancient Greece than it does with William Shakespeare’s sympathetic portrayal of Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” And yet, Booth’s determination to document the alleged crimes of Abraham Lincoln that motivated him in his final moments hearkens back to Queen Clytemnestra’s revenge against her husband for sacrificing their daughter in exchange for military success in Aeschelus’s “Agamemnon.” Though Agamemnon and Lincoln were ultimately victorious in battle, they both meet their ends at the hands of those who thought the price of that victory was too high.
While it would be a stretch to assert that the reason theaters chose to mount these violent productions is because of the season, it’s undeniable that these spectacles of music, drama and violence would not exist without their ancient forebears. And while we do see a direct reflection of Greek mores in San Diego Opera’s production, we also have the opportunity to enjoy the Greeks’ less direct descendants in the Old Globe’s farce and the Cygnet’s drama.
Libby Weber is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter at @thelibbyweber or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.