John Gabriel Borkman at the Aurora

On Sunday Dave and I saw John Gabriel Borkman at the Aurora Theater. Afterward I said to Dave, I think we just saw a performance of an opera libretto without the music.

I’d never seen or read the play before, which was Ibsen’s second to last. It’s a very spare play, and if my memory was correct when rereading some of it the next day, it was made even sparer by some cuts taken in the performance. The characters are drawn more in bold strokes than in realistic detail, and Borkman in particular is quite a bit larger than life. The story has a poetic, mythic, somewhat stylized quality to it that at times seems to call out for singing rather than speech.

It’s also a bleak play, beautiful and poignant and at times profoundly comic, but very bleak. Most of these characters are determined to live out their days in what amounts to a tomb of their own construction, hiding themselves away and holding out for others to redeem them, holding out for others to do things and to make sacrifices on their behalf that the others will surely never, ever make. In contrast is Borkman’s son, whom I couldn’t help but sympathize with in his determination to get as far away as possible from the tomb his elders have built for themselves, and would like to shut him into as well; yet whom at the same time I couldn’t help but dislike a bit for his shallowness and aimlessness, even as I could well understand why he’d grown up as he had.

With some words and music by artists who can find their way sympathetically into the souls of these very difficult people, I could see it making a good opera and perhaps a powerful one.

John Carpenter is terrific as Borkman. I’ve enjoyed his work for a couple of decades now, and I’ve always thought of him as a very good actor within a somewhat limited range, but in the last few years he’s been going well beyond that range and finding all sorts of depths I haven’t seen in his performances before. The other standout, I thought, was Karen Lewis as Ella Rentheim, who breathes remarkable life into the role; her scenes with Carpenter were high points for me. But nobody is anything less than very good in this cast.

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