Review: After 27 Years, Meredith Monk’s ‘Atlas’ Returns to Earth
And Yuval Sharon’s new staging, the culmination of this adventurous director’s three-year residency with the orchestra, is both a radical transformation of the piece and an essentially modest conservation of it.
Revived with the assistance of close Monk collaborators but not Ms. Monk herself, the bones, and much of the flesh, remain in an opera that’s somehow simultaneously bustling and meditative, calm at its core as action and music swirl. The main character, loosely based on the world traveler Alexandra David-Néel, leaves a cozily ordinary existence with her parents to see the world with a band of companions. Led by spirit guides, they encounter farmland, ice, forest and desert, trials of courage and premonitions of destruction, before entering an otherworldly realm that Ms. Monk calls The Ringing Place.
The scenes are poetic, almost entirely wordless, and sometimes surreal, but their narrative content is clear; they don’t pose abstract enigmas, like “Einstein on the Beach,” and Mr. Sharon has more or less stuck to them. He has hewed close to Ms. Monk’s original scenario and the original presentation — even the original appearance — of the characters. Danielle Agami’s fluid choreography evokes Ms. Monk’s graceful movement vocabulary.
The results are often properly sensitive, with mystical import, but, given the production’s looming, high-tech set, the action can also sometimes feel inadvertently quaint, a tad cautious. I thought, for example, that Mr. Sharon might reinterpret and modernize the fairy-tale beings that the explorers come across: Hungry Ghost, Ice Demons, Lonely Spirit, Ancient Man. What might a lonely spirit, for example, be in 2019 guise? But these were the same storybook figures they were in 1991.
A few tweaks have been made. Apocalypse is now imagined as an internet-era digital explosion, and the climate crisis is suggested by images of fire-trailing bodies and a temperature-tracking map superimposed on the sphere.
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.