A Composer’s Obsession Becomes an Underwater Wonder

Watching puppeteer Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique is like experiencing an extreme episode of synesthesia.

All images, Symphonie Fantastique at HERE Arts Center, New York, created by Basil Twist, featuring pianist Christopher O’Riley and puppeteers Kate Brehm​, Ben Elling​, Andy Gaukel​, Jonothon Lyons​, and Lake Simons; lighting design by Andrew Hill; associate lighting design by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa  (photos © 2018 Richard Termine)

In 1969, in one of his Young People’s Concert episodes, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein aptly defined Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique as music’s “first psychedelic symphony in history, the first musical description ever made of a trip … written 130 odd years before the Beatles.”

Bernstein’s interpretation had a historical basis. The written program notes of the 1830 symphony describe it as the story of a young musician of a “morbidly sensitive nature” experiencing an opium-induced delirium. His attempt to overdose on the drug, when his love for a woman goes unrequited, results in surreal and gruesome visions, such as a march to the scaffold and a witches’ Sabbath surrounding his corpse.

This story is somewhat autobiographical: When Berlioz was 23, he saw the Irish actress Harriet Smithson perform the roles of Juliet and Ophelia. His ensuing infatuation was met with indifference. He wrote the Symphonie Fantastique partly to exorcise his feelings. Through its five movements, the melody ranges from a waltz to a march. Berlioz devised a musical cue to introduce the persistent thought of his beloved. Called the idee fixe, it’s an ascending-descending tune that conveys infatuation by both its hopeful and haunting components, conjuring expectation and disappointment. Berlioz eventually won Smithson over, but their marriage was short-lived.

In the years since I discovered the work, while writing for a classical music content website, I’ve found myself constantly mentally replaying some passages, especially the languid pastoral atmosphere of the Third movement and the frenzied orgiastic dance of the witches’ Sabbath. These passages make me wish I could translate the score into words or images. In fact, I was disappointed that such a richly narrative and visionary symphonic poem had only a few interpretations, and very little documentation on them to be perused. Choreographer Leonide Massine set Berlioz’s score to dance for Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1936; Uwe Scholtz in 1993 for the Leipzig Ballet Opera; and Krzysztof Pastor for the Australian Ballet in 2007. One wonders why Walt Disney did not choose it for an animated sequence, preferring instead Beethoven’s Pastoral and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

Luckily, New-York based puppeteer Basil Twist filled this void. Twist, a recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant, premiered his first production of Symphonie Fantastique in 1998. For its 20-year anniversary, his new production at HERE Arts Center imbues Berlioz’s score swith metaphysical and abstract connotations. Mary Fleisher described it as “fluid, abstract shapes in constant motion” in 1998, citing artist Wassily Kandinsky, whose abstract paintings often reflected music, as an inspiration.

Abandoning traditional puppetry in favor of feathers, ribbons and drapes, Twist’s puppets — adorned with ink and glitter and accentuated by lighting — are operated in a 1,000-gallon water tank, his claim being that everything is more fascinating when it’s placed underwater. This visionary magic is courtesy of five wetsuit-clad puppeteers, who seamlessly move the props in the water tank with fiber-optic cables.

Twist represents Harriet, Berlioz’s love interest, with a white prop, sometimes taking the form of a flowing sheet resembling the robes that drape ancient Greek statues, other times a flash of white light that eventually acquires some color. As the manifestation of the idee fixe, this works well in accordance to the musical reference material, where the tune slightly mutates in each movement, eventually becoming a grotesque parody of itself in the Sabbath portion — a “vulgar tavern tune,” in the composer’s own words.

In a 2001 review in The Guardian Lyn Gardner panned the production, stating, “this 60-minute underwater fantasia […] is about as interesting as spending the evening at home watching your lava lamp while listening to a CD.” I wonder if I would have enjoyed the performance as much as I did had I been unfamiliar with the score. Based on the 2018 revival, I think I would have. Amorphous shapes float, twirl, and bounce against a neon-blue background. Watching Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique is like experiencing an extreme episode synesthesia.

The current production includes one feature that was absent in the 1998 production and gives this abstract work an element of cohesiveness: live music. When it debuted in 1998, Symphonie Fantastique was accompanied by a recording of the original orchestral version, which employs 90 instruments. For the 2018 version, pianist Christopher O’Riley performs Franz Liszt’s transcription of the work. Piano transcriptions can be overly scholarly and serve as a pretext to showcase the performer’s virtuosity. However, O’Riley interprets Liszt’s version with the same fervor that the protagonist experiences in the fictional universe of Symphonie Fantastique. The pianist pauses between movements, making expressive gestures and grimaces conveying infatuation, awe and distress. This culminates in the frenzied rhythm of the danse macabre of the coda, which sounds both farcical and ominous, after which he emerges from his seat, unkempt and drenched in sweat.

O’Riley’s performance adds another layer to the production. By synchronizing his movements with those of the puppets that twirl in the water tank behind him, he appears to assume the role of the artist, who, within the frame of the symphony, conjures its psychedelic visions.

In a Wizard of Oz-like turn, Symphonie Fantastique concludes with the puppeteers inviting the audience backstage, in a way that, much like Berlioz’s original program notes, sheds light on the opium-induced vision experienced by the title character. In the case of Twist’s production, behind the twirling drapes there’s certainly a lot of vigorous physical exertion. In the end, it is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly when Berlioz’s personal obsession and opium predilection become the pretext for performance art.

Symphonie Fantastique continues at HERE Arts Center (145 6th Avenue, Lower Manhattan) through July 15.

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