Review: After 27 Years, Meredith Monk’s ‘Atlas’ Returns to Earth

Review: After 27 Years, Meredith Monk’s ‘Atlas’ Returns to Earth

But if this isn’t fully tribute-band Meredith, it’s a faithful cover.

With one overwhelming intervention: that set, the immense orb that’s arresting from the moment you see it through the doors to the auditorium. Serving as projection screen and playing space, with internal corridors visible through shifting panels, it is the work of the designer Es Devlin, best known for light boxes that dominated the stage in Beyoncé and Kanye West stadium shows. The projections, by Luke Halls, conjure globes and deep galaxies, chalk drawings and the surface of the moon.

It’s eye-popping, and its extravagance gives rise to some tension between medium and message: A work that pleads the virtues of simplicity and poverty is being told in a way that hardly lets you forget how complicated and fantastically expensive it is. But it also often matches the mysterious beauty, the combination of sophistication and childlike wonder, of the score; when performers were first revealed within the sphere, I giggled in sheer delight.

Especially at the beginning, there was a sense of the talented cast trying to do the piece “correctly” — an ever-so-slightly stilted quality, a degree of self-consciousness — but that eased as the evening went on and the calligraphic vocal lines began to course with more confidence and personality over the mellow orchestra. In the end, this “Atlas” was an experience a little cooler than the original production — as it comes across on video, at least — but still radiant.

Three performers play the main character as she ages. As the middle Alexandra, the part once played by Ms. Monk, Joanna Lynn-Jacobs has a more slender instrument than her matchless predecessor, but a bright tone and smiling energy. The entire cast sang beautifully — warmly and offhandedly, too, once they forgot to be overly diligent. Ms. Monk’s music should feel like conversation; it did, once this performance really got going.

The L.A. Phil New Music Group, in a subtly expanded orchestration of the piece, played with spacious flexibility, with fullness yet delicacy, under Paolo Bortolameolli. The score’s repeating figurations were propelled forward but never pushed. Near the end, the a cappella section “Earth Seen From Above” was simply exquisite, the ensemble making a softly hovering, kaleidoscopically shifting drone as an image of our planet, wrapped around the sphere, filled in with color.

While the classic recording of “Atlas” ends on that transcendent note, the opera returns its protagonist to earth. Ms. Monk writes, at the end of her description of the action of “Atlas,” that Alexandra, now an old woman back at home, “has fearlessly lived a life inspired by her wish to seek the unknown. She has learned that the unknown dwells in every moment and to honor it is to live life fully.”

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