Sunday, January 26, 2014

Elisir and Other Love-Drugs

Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore at the Metropolitan Opera
January 17, 2014

Adina (Netrebko) reading the story of Isolde's love elixir
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: It is a truth universally acknowledged that all you need is love. But what does one need in order to procure that love in the first place? Many of the characters in Donizetti’s deceptively deep Elisir d’amore put forth assumptions of their own, and over the course of Act I several hypothetical elixirs are proposed. What is it that makes someone fall for you? Is it country bumpkin Nemorino’s simple-minded, bull-headed persistence or the way he shakes his hips in the charming little dance he does? Do words alone do the trick in the form of desperate pleas? Or are “i soliti sospiri,” the sighs of a lover’s lusty desire enough? Is it army sergeant Belcore’s gallantry, his boastfulness, his overweening self-confidence? Or is it chemical? Is there a drug you can take to procure the desired effect, like quack doctor Dulcamara’s famous fleeting elixir? “In quel cor non son capace lieve affetto ad inspirar,”* Nemorino proclaims in his first aria. And so, in what is truly the show’s opening number, we are presented with the question pervading the whole opera: What is it that makes us capable of inspiring that highly sought after “lieve affetto” in the soul of the object of our affection.

Nemorino (Vargas) sighing over his love 
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
After failing with his usual routine of supplication and debate, Nemorino changes tack and seeks his expedient for love from the itinerant confidence man posing as a doctor. While he waits for the “buon Bordeaux” he bought in the guise of a mythical-medicinal “elixir of love” to kick in, Nemorino starts to ignore Adina, the woman he desires. And as it turns out, this is what starts to change the tide in his favor. Once cold to his every affront, Adina slowly warms up since she suddenly misses the attention he used to lavish on her. By the end of Act I, it seems that playing hard to get is the best way to prod her into love. In addition, Adina responds sympathetically to Nemorino as he is brutally pushed around by Belcore in front of the townspeople. Love may also stem from her compassion for this poor man’s plight.

Mariusz Kwiecień as a playful Belcore in 2012 
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Adina’s pity for Nemorino was particularly enhanced in this run of the production, where Belcore was played by Nicola Alaimo, a very corpulent Italian baritone who portrayed the sergeant’s arrogance as cruel, abusive and brutal. Quite a difference from when we first saw this production in the 2012 season opening gala, when this same character was played by the sexy Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień, who interpreted Belcore’s boastfulness as playfully charming and sardonic, coming off as the jerk women can’t help but like. When Adina flirts with a Belcore as attractive and fun as Kwiecień, one can think that she may actually be into him and perhaps also want to have some fun together, in line with her initial spiel about free love. On the other hand, if Belcore is of an unappealing Falstaffian size and demeanor, it is clear that Adina never really falls for him but is just going along with his advances mostly to appease a threatening invading soldier. Nicola Alaimo’s singing was very strong and dominating as Belcore, giving a darker, scarier twist to a character that is often played as simply an entitled womanizer.

Belcore (Kwiecień) makes Adina (Netrebko) swoon
Photo credit: 
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Belcore (Alaimo) scares Adina (Chuchman)
Photo credit: Andrea Mohin / The New York Times

Lui: It was like Falstaff fever had infected this year’s revival of last year’s new Bartlett Sher production. Belcore was played with the arrogance and overabundance of a Falstaff still in the prime of his military life (incidentally, Alaimo did play Falstaff at the Met earlier this season). It is amazing what a difference casting makes, even just physiologically.

Nicola Alaimo as a Falstaffian Belcore
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 

Lui: In Act II further remedies for love are put forth: Does drunkenness turn a lover on? Or is money the true elixir of love? Wealth seems to be all the rest of the country girls are looking for in a man. As soon as they find out that Nemorino has suddenly become the recipient of an immense inheritance upon the death of his uncle, they descend on him like chicken on corn. But Adina sets the elixir story straight in one of her most beautiful duets with the itinerant quack, Dulcamara, this time sung powerfully by opera heartthrob, Erwin Schrott. “La ricetta è il mio visino,” she tells him when he tries to sell her his famous phony elixir as a solution to her amorous woes. She knows that her pretty face and feminine wiles are all she needs to attract her prey. No love-drug, not even a bottle of Bordeaux is necessary for a woman who knows how to play her charms.

Netrebko's high energy Adina
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lei: With explosive acting and singing, Anna Netrebko and her ex-partner Schrott were on fire. Against all rumors that she may have called in sick at the opening of this run of Elisir because she did not want to share the stage with him, Netrebko was in excellent form, maybe the best I’ve seen her so far. Her acting was really intense and high energy. Vocally strong, light, fast but also highly lyrical at times. I believe she can still deliver an outstanding Adina regardless of what some say (that her voice is now too chesty and mature for this character). Actually, she perfectly embodies the bossy, power-woman side of Adina. At the end of the day, she owns and manages a farm so a more womanly portrayal can definitely fit with the character. She exudes charisma and passion. Always been a fan, after tonight even more so.

Lui: The chemistry between the two of them was electric and playful and fun. Even if there was a little tension, they really played off each other nicely. The dynamic changes when they cast a hot young hunka hunka burning love like Erwin Schrott to play Dulcamara. It opens up the possibilities of a series of flirtatious exchanges between he and Adina, which is exactly what we got. Sparks were flying during their interaction late in Act II. Their banter was so vivid and lively when the quack doctor is trying to sell Adina on his magic love potion and she realizes that she has actually fallen for Nemorino that I found myself caught off guard by the sudden shift to Nemorino’s big aria as the melancholic refrain of Una furtiva lagrima kicked in.

A hot Dulcamara (Schrott) and a giggling Adina (Netrebko)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Ambrogio Maestri as a fatherly Dulcamara in 2012 
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Lei: While I’ve seen Dulcamara done as a young and sleek con artist (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in Otto Schenk’s 2005 Vienna production), this is the first time I’ve seen him portrayed as a Jack Sparrow type. It worked and was fun, although Schrott’s acting often referenced the Johnny Depp character a bit too closely, a lighter hand would have probably worked equally well. Pirate looks aside, I liked Schrott way better than Maestri who, at least when we saw him last year, acted as a fatherly and condescending figure without much depth. Dulcamara’s portrayal by this hot Uruguayan bass-baritone had definitely more sex drive, as he seemed to be groping every peasant girl who happened to pass by and was very much bewitched by Adina’s “una tenera occhiatina” (though that may be because his real-life ex was as charming as ever). Schrott was also, together with Netrebko, the strongest singer on stage, really owning the Dulcamara character, with perfect Italian, playful crowd-pleasing acting and effortless vocal power. Yet another excellent baritone who is a pleasure for both the eyes and the ears.

Dulcamara - Jack Sparrow (Schrott)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: Ostensibly set during something like the Italian Risorgimento with an invading army of foreign soldiers, this new production takes Nemorino’s simpleton a bit more seriously, casting him as a tormented soul who is smarter than anyone gives him credit for. During the overture he paces out in front of the curtain with a little notebook in which he jots down the poetic thoughts that aggravate his soul (however, he is still too dense to pick up on the finer points of the Tristan and Isolde story Adina reads to them). Later the soldiers are surprised to see that he knows how to write his name, a moment when in most productions he simply signs his life away with an “X,” which is all that is required of him since they take him for an illiterate country boy.

Nemorino (Vargas)
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Ramón Vargas looks and acting delivered an excellent Nemorino, sweet, funny and adorable. Definitely more convincing than Polenzani in this same production back in 2012, who played it almost Hamlet-like, constantly looking startled by the circumstances around him but without that lightness and boyish innocence that are quintessential Nemorino character traits and that Vargas portrayed so well. I wish I could have equally positive comments on Vargas’ signing but I am sorry to report that he confirmed my theory that these days there’s a devastating tenor famine. Do they not make world class Italian-style tenors anymore? Vargas started weak then warmed up and did a few good things, but delivered a merely passable Una furtiva lagrima that left me lukewarm. While the aria is about one furtive tear, if it’s done right my tears run copiously and I even sniffle a bit. All I experienced this time was a touch of extra eye moisture but no waterfalls whatsoever. So disappointed. Also, the fact that Vargas butchered quite a few Italian words (for some reason he kept pronouncing double consonants as singles) did not make him score any extra points

Act I sets
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
It’s funny how seeing the same production a second time can trigger very different reactions. When I first saw Sher’s Elisir in Spetmber 2012, I got out of the Met ranting and pouting, complaining about its blandness and unimaginativeness for an opening gala and excessive seriousness that betrayed the core of Donizetti’s masterpiece. While I stand by the non-gala worthiness of this setting, after seeing it again, I really enjoyed this production as traditional yet solid and handsome. One thing though I still cannot stand: the finale with folks lining up bottles of elixir on the front of the stage. It just does not work with the libretto and the spirit of Dulcamara’s final aria. I really think it’s more effective when the quack doctor and his assistants hand out elixir bottles to the crowd selling them as real love potions, having everybody buy them and instantly fall in love with their neighbors, in a love apotheosis with Dulcamara triumphantly exiting as the savior of the village.

Act II sets 
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Barlett Sher’s new take replaced a slightly psychedelic, slightly cartoonish 1991 production that wore its illusions on its sleeve. Sets were lifted up and down and in and out during the performance so that the stagecraft was an element of the story itself. Though I was not convinced by Sher the first time we saw his work at last year’s gala, I have to admit that it grew on me this time. Having recently revisited the old production on DVD, this new one is definitely an improvement on the Met’s precious storybook take on Donizetti’s tightly woven, wrenching (I always cry) love story disguised as an opera buffa. Though in part I want to credit that to the thrilling cast we saw in it this year lead by conductor Maurizio Benini. It’s amazing how strong singers and compelling presences can make all the difference, particularly when stars like Netrebko and Schrott are in such good form.

Lei: We saw one of the most gossiped opera ex-couples deliver a terrific joint performance and, yes, kiss enthusiastically (on the mouth!) at curtain call – perhaps singing about the tricks of love with your ex at the Met is yet another elisir d’amore to add to our list.

Adina (Netrebko) smiling at Dulcamara (Schrott) – off character?
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera 

* “In her heart the slightest affection I am ever unable to inspire.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Being There: LaDoMA

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović
Directed by Robert Wilson
Park Avenue Armory, December 14, 2013
Marina Abramovic and funeral mask. 
Photo credit: BAM
Biography is not a genre that typically ends up getting played out on the stage. Yet, over the last year several biographical pieces have found their way to New York theaters. In early 2013, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Volumes 1-4 brought to the Public Theater a 10-hour musical epic, based on the verbatim transcripts of a series of phone interviews with an ordinary Williamsburg resident, one Kristin Worrall, that recounts her journey through youth and young adulthood in minute detail, unabridged of all the likes, ums and ahs of colloquial speech. Over the summer 2013, biography on the stage came in the form of a dense and stimulating one-woman show, Sontag: Reborn, based on the early journals of Susan Sontag, that chronicles her creative, intellectual and sexual coming-of-age. New York City Opera staged the lives of two salacious female subjects: Margaret Campbell, the dirty Duchess of Argyll in Powder Her Face, late last winter; and the notorious centerfold in the eponymous Anna Nicole, this fallFinally, by the end of the calendar year, the Park Avenue Armory brought us Robert Wilson’s magisterial The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (LaDoMA), which purports to give us a biographical sketch of its eponymous protagonist, but, nevertheless, winds up delivering that and so much more.
Billed variously as a free form or “quasi-opera” in the manner of Robert Wilson, under the spell of whose Einstein on the Beach I fell earlier this year as well, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (LaDoMA) was most thrilling for its musical eclecticism. Experiencing it live, I was reminded of the fact that there is no reason why opera has to maintain slavish attitudes towards its traditional roots. Like so many of his theatrical collaborations, Wilson and his collaborators draw on just some of the many musical vernaculars that are available to a contemporary opera composer. In the case of this avant-opera, the soundscape consists of an intermingling of pop music, the rock ballad, Balkan folk music, electronica, modern minimalism, simulated orchestral music, and an assortment of other Dadaist noise experiments, like the sound of a snare drum rolling through the woods down a steep hill. As ever, Wilson runs the gamut.
The Balkan folk singer Svetlana Spajić. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
Collaborators on the project are listed as Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons); the experimental electronic duo, Matmos; the Balkan folk singer Svetlana Spajić and her group of traditional singers; and three other musicians performing live from the orchestra pit; with additional musical elaboration credited to Nico Muhly, among his myriad projects, of recent Two Boys fame.
Against such a variegated musical texture, Svetlana Spajić’s Balkan folkloristic singing really stood out. Her exotic Eastern European-tinged chants were phenomenal. The closing number of the first act – Scene A8, “The Green Apple” – featured a seemingly endless repetitive call-and-response arrangement of a traditional Balkan folk song that droned on beautifully with a small chorus of gypsy-looking women dotting the stage, standing virtually motionless, who sang with such feeling. I could have listened to them forever. They stood so still within Wilson’s choreography that it was hard to tell if the voices we were hearing were actually emanating from the bodies adorning the stark minimalist composition of Robert Wilson’s signature staging.

Robert Wilson's signature staging.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
In classic Robert Wilson fashion, the lighting effects were immaculate from the moment you arrived. As the audience filed in to take their seats the stage was already impeccably illuminated and on full view. Three gorgeous long-legged dogs were seen wandering languidly between a trinity of bodies laid out on coffins as though at a wake, with their funereal-masked faces brightly lit. Patterns of three, as well as other Christological imagery, run through the show from beginning to end. Life, Death, Resurrection is the basic trajectory that it follows, as it proceeds in trinities and recurring trios of Marina Abramović figures.
After the show opened with Marina’s funeral times three, it became clear that this was not going to be your typical biographical stage show, but rather biography done Robert Wilson’s idiosyncratic way – the song sung by Antony in the first Kneeplay is, in fact, entitled Your Story, My Way. The life of the great performance artist, who also stars in the show, is broken up in his treatment. Rather than a monolithic chronicle of a “great woman,” he gives us the fragments of a life with its daily trials, doubts, insecurities, its familial struggles, phases of youthful rebellion and tireless search for selfhood amidst the domestic din of a life really lived like any other.
A chorus of ghoulish hospital patients. 
Photo credit: Lucie Jansch
“The Story of the Big Nose,” Scene A2, is just one such moment that elevates the particular to the universal. While Marina Abramović’s nose does play a particularly prominent role in her unique beauty, it is precisely this kind of formative memory that most of us have to carry around with us as part of our baggage. Part of growing up and finding ourselves includes an ongoing process of recognizing and accepting the idiosyncratic imperfections that make each of us unique. An intentional head injury is how Marina went about tricking her mother into finally seeking out a medical solution to her insecurities, though her plan was foiled. She winds up in an eerie bureaucratic hospital room, which is staged by Wilson as a hauntingly systematic game of leapfrog over lines of miniature hospital beds played by a gaggle of ghoulish in-patients, but her broken nose never procures the plastic surgery her heart so desired, much to her chagrin. The story is at once devastating, heartwarming and humorous.
The devilish MC.
Photo credit: Lucie Jansch
There were other moments of humor too, like the first full-fledged narrative reminiscence in Scene A1, “The Story of the Washing Machine.” Narrated by the demonic Willem Dafoe who played the overlord and MC for the entire evening, the scene was acted out with the exaggerated gestural visual language of mime, like many of the rest of the acting performances – that is, anytime the actors were not just standing still, or rolling down the stairs naked, backwards, and in slow motion, the dominant acting style was mime. In “The Story of the Washing Machine,” we are given a glimpse of a surreal domestic world from the point of view a child who is intrigued by the magical activity of the one big household appliance that spins and spins. She loves watching it spin until one day she gets stuck in it. Beyond the initial shock of the adults who were present for the accident, she only really seems to remember how her mother scolded her for her carelessness – a big theme in this portrait of an artist is the problematic and tension-driven relationship she had with her mother.
Close encounters with a washing machine. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
Much of the show has an artifice heavy self-consciousness to it, a signature Bob Wilson stiffness to it that bespeaks the great master’s attention to detail, his perfectionism, his indulgence in the illusion of theatrical experience. There are moments where Mr. Wilson’s theater of endurance for his actors comes vividly into contact with the Abramović method – in one incarnation or another. At least that’s what I made of the highly meditative, though physically exhausting exercise Willem Dafoe put himself through in Scene B3, the disintegration loop, as he runs back and forth at an angle on the stage while counting out the rhythm of his actions, referring to himself in the third person. It was intense though uniquely imprecise in its choreography and so the fatigue of the human body shined through, the fallibility of the flesh. This seems to be an approximation of just some of what Abramović has put herself and her pupils through over the last several decades in order to achieve the incredible feats of endurance she has accomplished.
Willem Dafoe singing Willem's Song. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
This brief repetitive running interlude then served as a transition into the series of scenes that set up for her death. What came next – in this my experiment in “being there,” namely, my attempt at conjuring in writing an experience I lived in the flesh – was the scene in which Marina was rolled out on her pedestal, lying recumbent on something like an elevated Roman triclinium. As she reached the center of the stage, a glorious low-lying layer of smoke seeped majestically out from either side of the proscenium. At first the layer of smoke looked like the sea flowing violently with all the force of Mother Ocean onto the stage to engulf our fearless freak of a narrator, Willem Dafoe. Then as the two sides of the fog cover collided and combined into one uniform but still dynamic undulating body of smoke, it looked like a view of the clouds from above, as though we had somehow ascended with Marina up above into some level of the heavens. The effect seemed so simple yet it was so profoundly perfect, so neat, so clean, so beautiful. It was a glorious moment of repose, despite the slightly grating off-key singing of our narrator. This is his big musical number, where he gets to sing Willem’s Song. Needless to say, he’s not a great singer, though it too does have a haunting off-kilter beauty to it. 
And then there’s the seeming non-sequitur interlude about the Wolf Rat.
The cold detachment of the surreal surface of Robert Wilson’s abstraction cracks dramatically when Antony comes out in the show’s emotional climax, and sings with such feeling: “My skin is a surface to push to extremes... But when will I turn and cut the world.” The sensation is a tingle that pierces the soles of your feet, runs through the body and up the spine leaving in its wake a trail of goose bumps on your arms and down your neck.
Sorting through the scattered fragments of a life. 
Photo credit: Robert Wilson website
The narrative thrust of the fragmentary piece, which builds in fits and starts according to the familiar Wilsonian alternation of “Scenes” and what he calls “Kneeplays,” slowly falls apart over the course of its nearly three-hour run time. Dates and facts are eventually presented out of order as Willem Dafoe’s surreal narrator figure begins to give up even trying to keep things in order by the end. Death and resurrection take over, universal biography is subsumed by the hagiographic impulse, and everything is swept away by the transcendent musical image of a volcano of snow. Antony’s angelic voice taking us into the snowy ether, as those three familiar Abramović figures hover over his head, like a trinity of transubstantiated Virgin Mary statuettes, and he sings: “I want white breath. I won’t ever rest. I’ve become a volcano of snow.”

Marina's funeral prologue (times three).
Photo credit: Park Ave. Armory

The assumption of a trinity of Marinas. 
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
It was a cold and blustery night when we were released from the show’s spell. Back out on streets of the city the gorgeous volcano of snow that had been erupting all afternoon to the tune of some six inches of accumulation had given way to a more unpleasant sleety rain that was threatening to transform prematurely all that snowy white crystal powder into big puddles of messy, wet slush. Fortunately we had the depth of vision and perfectionism of Robert Wilson’s genius to keep us warm even as we struggled to keep dry. The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, if nothing else, is a reminder of the variety of musical vernaculars available to the composer of contemporary opera: folkloristic singing, pop music, minimalist modernism. And that is a lesson that I cannot emphasize enough. Robert Wilson and his variegated team of collaborators told her story, his way.


Monday, January 13, 2014

A Fierce Baroque Pasticcio

Opera Feroce’s Arminio in Armenia
Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church (Brooklyn Heights)
January 10, 2014

Opera seria in two acts
Music by Nicola Porpora (Germanico in Germania, Carlo il Calvo, Semiramide Riconosciuta, Agrippina)
Libretto by A. Sconosciuto

While I was having breakfast last Friday morning, social media told me that, in case I was in the mood for baroque, Vertical Player Repertory recommended Opera Feroce’s Arminio in Armenia, playing that same evening in a Brooklyn Heights church. Of course I am always in the mood for baroque, especially if performed by a company named Opera Feroce - “Fierce Opera” or, as they put it on their website, “opera that bites.” The advertisement had little yet intriguing information on the show, stating that it had been created “by cross-pollinating an original plot and a lot of great music by Nicola Porpora” and involved “Shipwreck! Sorcery! Swordfights! And Turkeys!” Also, tickets were “$20 at the door (with no one turned away).” This was more than enough to lure us to the Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church, where we were rewarded with a most exhilarating and unique operatic experience.

Enticing flier for the cryptic event
Arminio in Armenia is a fun though seriously well-structured experiment that manages to repurpose delightful baroque arias in an approachable homage to the world of Italian opera seria. The piece is a baroque pastiche that rearranges arias from several of Nicola Porpora’s little-known operas and cantatas to fit an intricate plot where the fearless crusader Arminio is sent by the Pope to convert the Armenians to Catholicism, but ends up shipwrecked in Massachusetts, where he decides to convert the puritanical Pilgrims of the New World instead (!). Arminio’s adventures lead him to close encounters with Norberto, the uptight governor of Massachusetts, his twin peasant brother Adalberto, the latter’s love interest Clorofilla, the sorceress Tusnelda and the pilgrim maiden Genovinda.

Photo credit: Opera Feroce
The libretto is a combination of (mostly) original Italian arias and English recitatif. While on paper it sounds odd, it actually worked perfectly, playfully making the pasticcio feature crystal clear. I have to say that I liked this approach better than the Met’s Enchanted Island that kept the original music but re-wrote all the plundered arias in English. The beauty of the original Italian baroque arias is entirely lost if one slaps some English singing on them.

Opera Feroce admirably seems to have respected the integrity of the original Italian arias throughout, however, with one perhaps glaring and hilarious exception. In one of his stand out moments at the end of Act I, the quixotic governor belts out his mission as leader of his motley crew of Protestant refugees: “Miseri! I Pellegrini cercando la Terra Nuova / e la libertà dal Vaticano, da un barbaro / che mai non dimostrò pietà, che vuol / che i Pellegrini siano soggetti del Papa.”* For some reason, I just can’t imagine how such sentiments, which Norberto delivers in the pose of a rock-n-roll diva, could have fit anywhere into Porpora’s early eighteenth-century body of work.

Photo credit: Opera Feroce
Not only does this group have a sense of humor, but they also have vision. The first act in particular was brilliantly constructed with meticulous care placed on the layering of multiple subplots. After an action packed opening that features a storm at sea and a shipwreck, the cast of characters is introduced through a series of scenes that include more than one case of mistaken identities, intersecting triangles of amorous intrigue, magic spells and heightened religious and ideological tensions. The second act does not quite match the first in terms of care in composition and it seems to rush all too headlong toward a clean conclusion. While it is no less enjoyable, the payoff could be greater if they cultivated more of the narrative seeds planted in Act I, in which so many exciting characters came to life.

Although the show was advertised as a “re-premiere” concert (the piece was first performed in June 2012), it was actually a highly entertaining semi-staged performance, with singers jumping in and out of simple costumes, really acting and using props that ranged from turkey legs to magic wands. The three singers were all on double duty, each performing two very different characters. Mezzo-soprano Hayden DeWitt played the brave crusader Arminio and the pious pilgrim maiden Genovinda. Soprano Beth Anne Hatton was both the fierce witch Tusnelda and the Zerlina-like country girl Clorofilla. But it was Alan Dornak who showcased the widest range, switching back and forth from countertenor to baritone as Norberto and Adalberto, respectively. While all three were evidently having a lot of fun with the piece and had hilarious comic acting moments, they were quite serious about their singing, with excellent Italian articulation and great baroque musicality.

Beth Anne Hatton
Alan Dornak
Hayden DeWitt

The energy, passion and unassuming talent of these singers and the five-piece ensemble (violins, harpsichord, viola da gamba, traverso) were refreshing and left us wanting for more. The program mentions that sometime later this year we will have the pleasure of a fully staged costumed performance of this same piece. We will be sure to check out how Opera Feroce manages to improve this great material. Meanwhile, we’ll look forward to their next show, Magdalene’s Dilemma, an oratorio/mystery play with music by Giovanni Bonconcini – on February 6, as part of the Midtown Concert Series of the Gotham Early Music Scene.

- Lei & Lui

* “Miserable ones! The Pilgrims came in search / of the New world and freedom from the / Vatican and from a barbarian who never / showed any mercy, who wanted them to be / subjects of the Pope.”

An Infernal Happy Ending

La descente d’Orphée aux enfers
By Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Gotham Chamber Opera - St. Paul’s Chapel, January 5, 2014

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Every opera has a musical passage, an aria or a duet that gives it its raison d’être: a focal point for the feeling a composer desires to evoke with the piece. In the case of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, the crux of emotions is found in Orpheus’ plea for Pluto’s mercy. In his attempt to persuade the god of the underworld, Orpheus appeals paradoxically to Pluto’s humanity, his ability to empathize with his plight. Charpentier’s Orpheus is both master rhetorician and singer, and tenor Daniel Curran, who sung this part in Gotham Chamber Opera’s recent production, endowed his embodiment of the lovelorn poet with many moments of gut-wrenching beauty, especially when his voice reached up into the higher range. Considering the beauty of the music Charpentier gives Orpheus to sing, it is clear how he might be able to penetrate Pluto’s “cœur impénétrable.” 

Photo credit: Richard Termine

One thing that baroque opera does particularly well is the lament. And the plaintive beauty of Orpheus’ petition to Pluto, which Curran sang with a level of refinement and style that seemed to temporarily stop time, achieved several moments of this particular baroque vocal artistry. Another element of this genre that keeps me coming back are the choral ensemble pieces. This is always where I tend to feel the debt of opera to Ancient Greek theater. Charpentier composed a series of ensemble pieces for his chorus of young men and maidens in the first act, penitent souls and harpies in the second, which provided the backbone for the whole opera. Against this multilayered vocal texture, Orpheus, the heart and soul of the piece, is really the only vocal part that comes to the fore.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
The approach to sets and costumes was on the minimalist side, especially when compared to the recent pyrotechnics of Gotham’s spectacular Baden-Baden 1927, which in many respects was on a whole other level. Here poor male chorus members had to sport very un-manly costumes (pastel colored shirts and berets, poison ivy belts) in Act I, though the ladies had better luck with flowing gowns and scarves that achieved lovely effects with the simple yet effective choreographies.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
I enjoyed the irony of staging a descent to the underworld in a church, with the bonus special hellish effects of the ground trembling under the audience’s feet, courtesy of the NYC subway. The subway’s low shuttering rumble seemed perfectly timed with the narrative on at least two occasions as the story unfolded. Gotham’s set choices were simple, yet made great use of the space. The addition of a white spiral staircase to connect the stage to the church’s balcony created two dynamic levels of action – most effective when divinities “up above” were involved, Apollo in Act I and the Pluto-Proserpina couple in Act II. The series of translucent white canvases around the stage served as screens for computer-animated graphic projections that started as airy clouds when things are all bucolic and happy, then transitioned to very Inferno-like underground roots that seems to pump with blood like veins when the action moves to the underworld. The canvases also served as space dividers between the singers and the musical ensemble, which was rather unusually hidden away behind the stage and only visible to the public as a group of silhouettes.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Act II was more successful, both visually and vocally. The Dantesque projections and gruesome damned souls were a great contrast to the almost psychedelic joyful tones of Act I. In the underworld the breezy light voices of virtually the whole cast were overshadowed by the power of Pluto, who brought some manly thunder to the otherwise gracious singing. Bass Jeffrey Beruan’s Pluto was sensational. His deep, dark, rich voice filled the space effortlessly, and towered over everybody else. As king of the underworld, Beruan's characterization ranged from intransigent authority figure to hopeless romantic when he finally concedes to Orpheus’ plea.

Whether or not there were other acts that went missing, it is striking that what remains of Charpentier’s two act cantata is a positive take on the myth that conveniently disregards the tragic end of the story. We are left with an optimistic belief in the viability of resurrection. And religious imagery is, in fact, present elsewhere as well. In Charpentier’s version, Eurydice is dancing in the garden with her cohort of young maidens on the eve of her wedding to Orpheus when she stumbles on a snake that leads to her fall.

Marc Tansey, Still Life, 1982
 Unlike the standard tragic denouement that is conspicuously missing from Charpentier’s optimistic truncation, this version of the myth of Orpheus holds true on the promise that art is able to betray death, that through artistic expression one is able to achieve immortality. In line with the promotional poster for the Gotham production, though nature inevitably fades and a bouquet of flowers eventually wilts away, its representation in the artist’s painted still life will live on forever. So Charpentier’s Orpheus and Eurydice live happily ever after.

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Gotham’s treatment of the ending does not let the couple off so easy. During the concluding musical interlude, as the reunited lovers ascend the spiral staircase together, Orpheus gives us a glimpse of his fateful lack of self control: he looks back too soon to lay eyes on his irresistible love. And this is the fleeting freeze frame this production engrains on our mind’s eye at the last moment before the house lights suddenly and dramatically cut to black, though the libretto and the score only ever get so far as depicting in music and in words the joyous reunion of the young couple. There is an insistence on presenting the conclusion of the tragic story, thus giving us closure, but at the same time undermining the message of the promotional poster: namely, that art saves. Instead, we are reminded of the fact that the artist is also just as capable of irremediably losing that which he regains.

With all this hype around Gotham Chamber Opera right now with everyone waiting for the company to fill the vacuum left by New York City Opera, this production serves as a reminder of their actual caliber. As ever, musically they are truly remarkable and consistently worth following, with a variety of talented young voices always vital and fresh. But their productions are not always at a level one comes to expect from the major leagues. The beauty often lies in the inventiveness they always manage to muster with their many ad hoc venues. They’re still a young company that shows heaps of promise but still has room to grow and we’re eager to track their growth.

- Lui & Lei

Michel Martin DrollingOrpheus and Eurydice, 1820