November 23rd, 2011 · Alexander Ferrando
Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss
A twelve-hour- long repetition of an excerpt from the final act of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro sounds disagreeable, or so one might think. Replete with a full orchestra, operatic singers in Baroque costumes, namely the great Icelandic tenor Kristján Jóhannsson, Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss quite extraordinarily incorporated all its parts to create one engrossing situation at the Abrons Art Center. For his Performa Commission, Kjartansson wed the spectacle of opera with the dramatics of endurance art—two disparate disciplines hardly known in today’s attention deficient culture for their ability to captivate—to present a performance that was anything but boring.
From noon until midnight, cast members periodically found their ways offstage and at one point a violinist (or was that a viola?) sprang up from the orchestra pit to, one imagines, locate the backstage restroom. There was generally a sense of improvisation as singers reshuffled and noticeably sought respite beneath the set’s painted trees and Greek revival gazebo. As the aria neared one of its ends seven-plus hours into the performance, David Thor Jonsson, the conductor, led the orchestra with his wiggling fingers to a jazzy fade that signified a kind of gleeful delirium. Two attendants also dressed in period costume appeared on stage and before the pit, like silent footmen, delivering food and drink to the singers and musicians. Never once did any of these practical instances feel like a disruption, instead they were precisely what compelled the audience to stay and watch.
Kjartansson is no stranger to the theater; he comes from a family of actors and directors and in 2001 he created The Opera, a work in which he sang opera-like tunes over ten days in a small Rococo-style room. Bliss is perhaps a refined progression of this earlier attempt, showing the artist narrowing his focus to Figaro’s final, joyous act. Here, the count begs his wife for forgiveness, which she ultimately gives him, but only after declaring herself more kind than he. Following this, the entire court breaks into song to celebrate the reconciliation. In repeating only this moment of happiness over and over again, Kjartansson deflates the played elation of the haggard actors to incorporate the audience in his uncanny reality, and in so doing he blurs distinctions, if only fleetingly, between theater and life.