On the stage, tree roots are wrapped around old columns, their arches resembling outstretched branches. Brachen used to welcome the likes of Goethe and Brahms; now it is a run-down near-ghost town whose inhabitants haunt its streets with a combination of nervous energy and resignation. But Claire Zachanassian (Chita Rivera), the richest woman in the world and a former resident, has decided to return. Arriving with her butler (Tom Nelis) and two blind eunuchs (Matthew Deming and Chris Newcomer), she makes an offer: execute her former lover, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who publicly challenged the paternity of their child, and she will shower Brachen with her wealth.
The Visit, the last musical written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is a beautiful, ethereal work, its Brachen evoking the village in Kafka’s Castle. The scenes do not exactly have a standard cause-and-effect relationship, but instead cumulatively establish an unshakably trancelike tone. Most interesting of all is Claire’s love for Anton and Anton’s love for Claire, which are never in question: the execution seems predetermined, out of Claire’s hands even as she demands it, and Anton’s acceptance of his death does not prevent further tenderness with her. Their relationship is tarnished by earthly considerations, and they both see in death the fulfillment of a Platonic ideal free from dirty, human considerations.
Ms. Rivera is excellent, and the thunderous applause she gets upon her entrance does not influence what is really a rather subtle and underplayed performance. Mr. Rees, too, carries an ineffable mixture of happiness and regret about him. Their song “You, You, You,” which suggests both the inadequacy of language and the associative power of a mundane word, is absolutely heartbreaking.
Among other musicals vying for audience attention, The Visit stands out for its refusal of anthems and other songs where emotions have a proportional relationship to volume. It is a gorgeous, quiet melodrama, and the best musical I have seen in quite some time.