Review: Listening (Yes, Listening) to the Beauty of van Gogh

Review: Listening (Yes, Listening) to the Beauty of van Gogh

Since its founding 16 years ago, Ensemble for the Romantic Century has aimed for salon-scale variations on the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, in which all the arts are melded into a cohesive unity. The show combines live musical performance with elaborate visual displays and actors reciting from firsthand historical accounts. The ensemble has previously presented multimedia portraits of the French fantasist Jules Verne, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and an assortment of classical composers, including Chopin.

It’s a résumé that reeks a bit of worthy cultural gentility — people gathering to nod and sigh solemnly in the presence of sanctified masterpieces. And “Van Gogh’s Ear,” my first encounter with this company, can initially come across as too consciously and carefully “artistic,” with quotation marks appended.

But the thoughtfulness that infuses every aspect of Mr. Sanders’s production — and the committed skill of its performers and designers — soon wears down your resistance. Chief among the show’s methods is seduction by color, with a palette that is as aural as it is visual.

Vanessa James’s set would at first appear to be a model of austere chic, in pristine black and white. Two playing areas — including one that suggests a minimalist interpretation of van Gogh’s painting of his room at Arles — flank a white grand piano and four decorously arranged chairs.

Pay attention, though, to the tall blank panels at the back of the stage, the geometric white pathways on the floor and the empty canvases on both sides. As you watch these spaces, they begin to bloom with color — projections of van Gogh paintings, often in extravagantly magnified detail.

Rendered with startlingly tactile beauty through David Bengali’s projections, with lighting by Beverly Emmons, these images are echoed and enhanced by chamber pieces and songs by so-called Impressionist and Romantic composers who were contemporaries of van Gogh: Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson and César Franck. They are performed with disciplined fervor by a string quintet, two pianos and two vocalists, all attired (Ms. James did the costumes) to match their late-19th-century French environment.

In the midst of these swirling sights and sounds stands a reedy, bearded man, whose angular postures suggest both unusual pliability and fragility. That is our troubled hero, Vincent van Gogh (Mr. Hudson), who speaks words culled from letters to his brother, the art dealer Theo (Chad Johnson), then living in Paris.

Those letters, written by Vincent from the rural South of France, where he had settled to paint, offer one of the most penetrating first-person accounts on record of the sensibility that shaped an artist. (They have inspired earlier works that include Robert Altman’s fine 1990 movie, “Vincent & Theo.”)

Ms. Wolf’s script contains passages describing the penurious daily existence of Vincent, who never sold a painting in his lifetime. But it is also rich in Vincent’s catalogs of the colors he saw everywhere, in sunsets and cypresses, in women’s skins and the seemingly colorless soil of Southern France.

In the perfectly chosen passage that begins the show — and anticipates what we will experience during it — Vincent says that “water and also air, they are colorless, looked at this way.” But, he continues, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in the blue, then you must put in yellow and orange, too, mustn’t you?”

Mr. Hudson, a standout in “The Effect” Off Broadway and now a regular on the television series “Snowfall,” speaks such lines not with the expected childlike rapture, but with humble deliberation, as if always aware of the inadequacy of the words. There is fretfulness in even his most lyrical descriptions, and it is remarkable how this paradox is mirrored in the atonality-spiked lushness of the music.

The songs are performed (beautifully) by Mr. Johnson, a tenor, and the mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum, who appears as both Gabrielle Berlatier, the young woman in Provence who received van Gogh’s ear, and Theo’s wife, Johanna.

There are, mercifully, no awkward attempts to wedge the songs into the story line. They exist as haunting echoes of one man’s pervasive joy and agony.

In a sequence toward the end, shortly before his suicide, Vincent sets up a canvas on an easel. He walks around and away from it, and bends his body to change the view. He turns to face the images projected around him, details of larger paintings that in close-up become three-dimensional explosions of color, as the ensemble performs Fauré’s ravishing Piano Quintet No. 2 in C minor.

And for a magical moment, Mr. Hudson’s Vincent seems, unconditionally, the product and creator of this sensory mise en scène.

“There are things that one feels coming and they are coming in very truth,” he says. “There is an art of the future, and it is going to be so lovely and so young, that even if we give up our youth for it, we must gain serenity by it.”

It is no small achievement that “Van Gogh’s Ear” makes us understand, no feel, the fathomless pain and reassurance in those words.