There is a standard joke that the musically illiterate have “Vincent van Gogh’s ear for music,” but van Gogh himself actually studied the piano briefly and took music very seriously. Van Gogh’s Ear is structured around a selection of the artist’s letters to his brother Theo and arranged with musical counterpoint by Eve Wolf, whose company, Ensemble for the Romantic Century, specializes in pairing primary historical sources with chamber music. (In December, the troupe will stage Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, set to works by Liszt, Schubert, and Bach.)
It might at first seem a counterintuitive choice to pair the harsh intensity of van Gogh’s words and images with the sensuous delicacy of pieces by French composers like Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré. Yet the show often achieves an intriguing balance via the deeply romantic nature of this music and the increasing desperation of van Gogh’s letters to his brother. Formidable soprano Renée Tatum plays both an object of the artist’s ardor and the wife of Theo (Chad Johnson), and she is commanding in each role. Tatum mainly sings Wagnerian repertory, so there is a special excitement in hearing her winged, large, flexible voice in the contained setting of the Irene Diamond space at Signature Center.
The only real problem with Van Gogh’s Ear is the casting of Carter Hudson as van Gogh. He enters the stage in a floppy straw hat that looks comically wrong on him, and when Hudson takes it off he does not look or act remotely like the image of this artist. His hair is dark and his beard is tidy; his clothes are attractive and immaculate, even though van Gogh is living in extreme poverty and at one point has to enter a madhouse. Hudson speaks initially in a fast-paced, blustery, modern style; he has a wealth of words to dispatch as he recites, monologue-like, the messages to Theo. Maybe a preoccupation with memorization stifled his efforts.
Perhaps, though, Hudson is just not right for this part — in looks or in manner. There is nothing tormented about his attitude, and he sometimes seems like a con man or a wheeler-dealer, which is not at all what the role demands. If Hudson had approached it from a more clearly Method perspective, he might have gotten into it; there are brief flashes when his face seems van Gogh–like as he listens to the music. It could be that all it would have taken for Hudson to enter the mood was a lightening of the hair and a dirtying of the clothes. As it is, he looks entirely too put together, and when he speaks van Gogh’s most heartbreaking words, he seems separate from them.
Wolf has obviously put intelligence, care, and sensitivity into Van Gogh’s Ear. The music is regularly transporting, particularly in the first of the two acts. The way that parts of van Gogh’s paintings are projected above the musicians gives a supercharged and angry frame to what they are doing. The music and the imagery start to interact and to challenge each other, but unfortunately, whenever the music stops, the words, as delivered by Hudson, bring things to a screeching halt.
Van Gogh’s Ear
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through September 10