Friday, June 17, 2016

An Irresistibly Racy Rossini at the Circus

Rossini’s Le Comte Ory
The Muse, Bushwick
June 11, 2016

The count and his entourage wax holy.
Photo credit: Robert Altman
While exiting the Wilson subway stop on the L train, we played the by now usual game of “follow the cellist.” If you see a classical musician in deep Bushwick, chances are that they’re heading to a LoftOpera happening, so we just ditch Google maps and B-line it behind him. This time, as with every other time, the hurried cellist led us straight to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, where the buzz and crowds were bigger than ever. The venue (The Muse, a circus school) was literally bursting at the seams, with patrons who did not know where to sit and squeezed tightly on benches. It was a hot evening and by the end it only got hotter.

Follow that cello!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Le Comte Ory is an extremely ambitious project for an indie company. Theatrically, it’s an irreverent, borderline slapstick comedy which is way more difficult than a tragedy to stage effectively. Musically, you need stellar soloists capable of incredible bel canto acrobatics, a tight orchestra versed in Rossini’s quickfire style and a pretty big chorus that plays a central role in various scenes. LoftOpera took on the challenge, gambled and won – again – big time.

We were off to a great start, with the genius idea of having a couple of aerialists dressed like nuns do an opening warm-up number to modern beats including Prince and early Kanye West. It may seem irreverent and risqué but it’s actually perfectly in line with the spirit of Le Comte Ory, in which among other things Rossini has a group of soldiers crossdressed as nuns engaging in all sorts of debaucheries, including getting heavily drunk. So, some flying nuns dancing through the air over our heads to Prince just made sense.

Flying nuns, oh my!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
When it came to the actual opera, from the first bars of the overture, the sheer beauty, mischief and energy of Rossini’s score erupted from the orchestra lead by maestro Sean Kelly and remained truly the central character and propulsive force of the whole evening. The orchestra played like a tightly clenched fist. It was soothing to fall under the spell of Rossini’s giddy score despite the heat that was so hot you could cut it with a knife and melt a pad of butter on it. Nothing to do but hand yourself over to the feeling of the here and now of the musical moment. Beer was on tap this time, so no beer bottles and no clinking of glass falling to the ground during the show which I almost missed, since it has always been part of the LoftOpera sonic aesthetic, though the overall acoustic experience was definitely cleaner as a result.

Sharin Apostolou devours Rossini's score.
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The cast was for the most part vocally exceptional. Soprano Sharin Apostolou in the role of the Comtesse Adèle was the singer who perhaps most chewed up Rossini’s bel canto score. She lingered on her character’s big show stopping pieces, vocally opening up a space for musical rapture. If time stopped tonight it was when Apostolou was singing. She owned her countess with solid bel canto chops and the requisite sex appeal that helped to justify why she might be the object of affection of so many.

Isolier clings to his master.
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Mezzo Elizabeth Pojanowski in the trouser role of Isolier was also a highlight. She had an agility and a youthful wistfulness in her representation of the young forlorn lover. She also had a knack for playing a young man: adapting the boyish mannerisms, gait, and gaze of one in the first throes of love. She was fun to watch. The first time Pojanowski came on stage accompanying Ory’s Tutor, sung by bass-baritone Jeff Beruan, I sighed a great sigh of aesthetic relief. Beruan has a warm bellyful sound that is dark-hued and guttural yet lyric and he used it to fill up the cavernous warehouse space.

Ory's tutor fusses over personal hygiene
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Tenor Thorsteinn Arbjornsson brought an irreverent childish freshness to his Comte Ory. Though his voice was not the strongest, Arbjornsson played the slippery charlatan with flair that was never over the top. In the first act, his mystic hermit was a psychedelic guru along the lines of the pseudo-cult frauds and phonies that are a dime a dozen on the Internet: a Bashar with a pink porn-star mustache and an adolescent’s libido. The Count represents after all a twisted take on the Don Giovanni figure. Ory is his failure of a distant second cousin – related but nowhere near as competent, not oozing with the same innate charisma.

A boisterous moment with the male chorus
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Possibly my most favorite parts of the show were the explosive ensembles when really everything and everybody came together in a whirlwind of hypnotic and dizzying music, singing and acting. In these moments, the 14-member chorus really stood out and carried the show both musically and narratively. Particularly memorable was the always hilarious scene of Ory’s men disguised as nuns (to infiltrate a convent) who are unhappy with the dinner of du laitage et des fruits (here rendered as “fruity dairy,” aka yogurt that the male chorus ate feigning disgust) and manage to procure and consume lots of booze that of course leads them to all sort of mischief (including undressing and playing Twister! Just before doing the can-can, of course). No matter how many times I’ve seen Ory, this scene always makes me crack up. Belly laughs abounded throughout the evening, and frankly there was not even need to read the supertitles, one just needed to let go and get carried away by Rossini’s contagious magic.  

The slumber party devolves into dancing and Twister
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Seeing Comte Ory in this setting was at once surreal and exhilarating. If one was catching the show for the first time, one may think that this indie company (free beers!) somehow updated a 1828 Italo-French opera to make it racier (threesome!), more irreverent (intoxicated dancing nuns) and provocative (spiritual guru gets paid with sex). But, actually, aside from the addition of cell phones, selfies and Yoplait, the production directed by John de los Santos was otherwise by the book. There was no regietheatre here, still, the show felt like a raucous avant-garde piece. The backdrop of an exposed brick circus school in Bushwick, steamy temperatures and the loft party vibe just enhanced Rossini’s original irreverence in the most perfect way. It is a testament to the composer and his librettist that this material is so fresh and has remained so racy even by today’s standards. There is no need to take it out of its original context. No updating is necessary in order to make it uproariously accessible to a contemporary audience. This is the beauty of LoftOpera’s mission: bring the classics to new audiences in the kind of setting in which years ago I would otherwise found myself in a warehouse party or indie rock concert. It’s like the scene is all grown up, in a way.

Various seduction plots collide in threesome
Photo credit: Robert Altman
LoftOpera has been wildly successful in bringing twenty-somethings to attend opera as if it was the next hot thing in Brooklyn. Other times I’ve been to their shows the crowd was much younger and hipper than the usual geriatric opera buffs we usually see at virtually any other evening at the opera. This time, though, things were different. The public’s demographic was far more across the board. LoftOpera is not becoming mainstream by any stretch, but there were definitely more over 30 (and over 60 – granted some with pink hair and green beards but still) than usual. The more conventional (as opposed to word of mouth loft parties) channel of raving reviews from the music critics of the New York Times, The Observer and the like seems to be broadening LoftOpera’s base. Interestingly, instead of attracting more young people to sit through an opera (which is what this company does best) the effect was to lure more old people to see a show in the very non-traditional setting of a raw loft in Bushwick. No matter how you look at it, LoftOpera continues to deliver a raging victory for the art form. Next up is Mozart’s Così fan tutte in September, and they better book a bigger venue and/or line up more dates because at this rate the crowds will keep growing.

– Lei & Lui

The various stages of pursuit
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The mystic hermit lures his prey
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Raucous "nuns" dance the cancan
Photo credit: Robert Altman

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