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An Unflinching Portrayal of Death's Advent

Mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson holds nothing back in an evening of Bach cantatas.


NEW YORK — Is there a great singer who has ever so trusted her director? Is there, indeed, any soloist anywhere so brave as Lorraine Hunt Lieberson?

Tuesday night, as part of its New Visions series, Lincoln Center presented the singular mezzo-soprano in the one of the oldest visions known to humanity--dying and how to do it. The program consisted of two Bach cantatas written for a solo singer and small instrumental ensemble. Peter Sellars directed. The presentation was unflinching. The singing was almost unbearably intense but also miraculously transcendent.

Death did not come right away. It was the subject of Cantata No. 82, "Ich habe genug" (It Is Enough), which Sellars interpreted as the spectacle of the last moments of life on earth. But first, he prepared the way with Cantata No. 199, "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut" (My Heart Is Swimming in Blood), which is about redemption.

The stage was bare, without backdrop. The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music took one side, Hunt Lieberson the other. In Cantata No. 199, the mezzo occupied a square of light, wearing a turquoise gown with a very long red sash, which she frantically clutched or flung, and with which she bound or strangled herself during her first aria.

The cantata begins in utter, Prozac-proof abjection, the mezzo suicidal in the face of her sin. But throughout the aria, an oboe d'amore quietly plays a long melody, and in the repeat of the first section, Hunt Lieberson became suddenly immobile, as if rising above her suffering and ego to listen.

She delivered her second aria on her knees and in full prostration, the two ends of the scarf flowing ceremoniously in front of her. Introducing the cantata to the audience, Sellars described this moment as symbolizing her lying down in her wound, accepting the pain of her suffering, moving beyond resistance. That she did and more; this happens to be a singer with such a lustrous, spellbinding voice that she can powerfully project even when lying on the floor, singing face down.

After a short, radiant chorale--with a buoyant viola melody sounding as her divine answer--the mezzo performed her final aria as a dance of irrepressible joy, her scarf now flung with the abandon of Isadora Duncan. After this dance with God, the penitent was finally prepared to die.

The well-known Cantata No. 82 also has three arias for the soloist but is freer in form, giving voice to the soul as it prepares to leave the body. Here Hunt Lieberson was dressed in a hospital gown, lying on the floor, connected to life-support tubing. The stage was pitch-black but for an unshielded light bulb held by a dancer, Michael Schumacher. And for half an indescribable hour, the soul (the bare light) struggled forth, as the terminal patient overcame physical pain and welcomed a beautiful transformation.

The long central aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" (Sleep Now, My Weary Eyes), contains one of the most moving melodies Bach ever wrote. Hunt Lieberson's singing was so still and quiet that she seemed to reach the limit of concentration. During the aria, she disconnected her tube, and repeated the melody again and again with ever greater concentration, greater stillness, greater quiet. If an artist can express the awe and wonder of death, this moment was it.

As a singer and actress, Hunt Lieberson has been edging toward legendary status for some years. She was originally to have premiered this production of the Bach cantatas two years ago in Berkeley, but canceled to nurse her sister, who was dying of cancer. Last year, she canceled nearly all her appearances because of her own bout with cancer. After facing death, she returns, sounding more impressive than ever, to share with us the meaning of that experience.

Craig Smith, who conducted, leads his group of musicians in a Bach cantata every week during Sunday services at Emmanuel Church in Boston. This is not the most accomplished of Baroque orchestras, but Sellars and Hunt Lieberson have long ties to Emmanuel Music. Years ago, before embarking on a vocal career, the mezzo was a violist with the ensemble and Smith conducted all of Sellars' early Handel and Mozart opera productions. Clearly the kind of trust that these artists have in Emmanuel Music provides the freedom to take such courageous emotional chances on stage.

Other longtime Sellars collaborators included James F. Ingalls, who provided the telling lighting, and Dunya Ramicova, who created the costume for Cantata No. 199. The production, commissioned by Lincoln Center and performed in the nearby John Jay College Theater, travels to London, Paris and Lucerne. And, one fervently hopes, UCLA--local representatives were on hand.

* These Bach Cantatas will be repeated Saturdaynight, John Jay College Theater, (212) 721-6500 or

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