Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tartuffe Strikes Again

Darius Milhaud’s La Mère Coupable
On Site Opera
The Garage
June 23, 2017

A mother and her guilt
Photo credit: On Site Opera
I have to hand it to On Site Opera. When it comes to taking risks, they have an incredible penchant for simply putting their heads down and going for it. As the crown jewel in their ambitious three year long Figaro Project, they brought us an unspeakably difficult evening of music. It was both challenging to execute on all levels, for the singers and musicians alike, and challenging, to say the least for the listener.

A product of his late, one would almost say, “over-composed” style, Darius Milhaud’s 1966 outlier, La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), accumulates melody on top of melody and often incorporates a countermelody so that a singer is often moving in musical directions that have little to no grounding in what the orchestral accompaniment is playing. Hats off to music director Geoffrey McDonald and the International Contemporary Ensemble for taking on Milhaud’s complex tapestry of a score with such professionalism and refined musicianship.

Beaumarchais' "The Other Tartuffe"
Title Page 1794
The opera opens with dissonance which, no matter how unpleasant it is to listen to, is a fitting introduction to current state of affairs in the all too familiar Almaviva household.

Twenty years after we last left them, Figaro, Susanna and company have aged. Cherubino may have long given up the ghost, but a new ramble rouser has lodged himself into the marital bliss between man and wife. His name may be Bégearss, but he owes the essence of his character’s existence to the avariciously malicious Tartuffe from Molière’s famous play. There is something derivative about many of its plot points. With such a pronounced debt to his fellow countryman, Beaumarchais seems to have lost some of his creative originality in this third installment of his otherwise very famous and quite ingenious Figaro trilogy, which this twentieth-century libretto is based.

Rather than the Count’s wife Rosina, the object of Cherubino’s eye in the previous installment, Bégearss has his sights set on the Count’s already grown daughter, Florestine. However, unlike Cherubino, this trouble maker is all fuoco e ghiaccio not so much for her regal flesh as for the money that would come along with it. But Florestine is in love with another. She has already given her heart to her step-brother Léon.

Rosina seeks to cheer the frustrated lovers
Photo credit: On Site Opera
You see, in the years that have transpired since we were last with the Almavivas, both the mister and the missus have engaged in extramarital affairs, which resulted in love children on both accounts. All of this only comes clearly into focus over the course of the opera as the family attempts to liberate themselves from the pesky parasite who is trying to pursue his own agenda at their expense.

It takes a village
Photo credit: On Site Opera
In the end, they manage to come together as a family. But the concluding bars of the piece are almost as cacophonous as the opening and so we are led to believe that this dysfunctional family is too screwed up and incesty for its own good and it will probably have future issues to face on down the road. Nevertheless, after their big septet final number in which, as in the good old days of opera, the whole cast stepped to the front of the stage to address the audience directly and extra-diegetically with the moral of the story, director Eric Einhorn plops them back down at the dinner table where peaceful resolution feels tenuous at best.

No matter how hard to listen to the score is, the cast was on the whole top notch. Unfortunately the excellent young tenor Andrew Owens, whom I was looking forward to hearing, had a cold and lost his voice. As a result of how difficult and rare this opera is, they were unable to replace him at the last minute and so he mimed his part and silently mouthed his lines in a performance that was something like lip syncing without any words at all to sync to, just the music. And so there was a considerable lacuna in this aspect of the score and its narrative.

The fresh-faced Florestine
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Soprano Amy Owens was resplendently fresh-voiced and buoyant as the lovely Florestine, desperately aching for the return of her betrothed.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, in the role of the slimy Bégearss, was strong and full-bodied in terms of his deep sound and he also struck a sufficiently creepy stage presence as the self-absorbed, opportunist Tartuffe nouveau.

Rosina has a life after Porgi Amor
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Soprano Jennifer Black delivered a moving, matronly Rosina, the Countess of Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand sang Figaro’s wife Susanne as a woman who had grown wary of the world after all the time that has passed. She managed to communicate some of the pain and suffering that the character must have experienced considering her martial and professional situation. The whole first half of the opera is not characterized by its levity of tone or content, whereas the second half found its narrative pace, hitting plot points with a much defter touch.

As their male counterparts baritones Adam Cannedy, as the Count of Almaviva, and Marcus DeLoach, as Figaro, grounded the opera with a bumbling sense of humor as well as with their broad resounding sound.

Begearss (right) thinks he has Almaviva right where he wants him
Photo credit: On Site Opera
The ultimate question that remains is really was it really worth all the fuss? On Site Opera rarely spares any expense and this production was no exception. They staged it at The Garage, a prime Midtown West multiuse warehouse, with the action unfolding on two different sides of the vast space. The first half of the evening found us along the far wall that was dressed to represent a variety of living quarters, albeit in a state of transition. Things were either being boxed up or unpacked for a move. From our seats the acoustics were a mixed bag during most of this portion of the performance.

After the intermission, the scene moved to an impromptu dining alcove in the corner adjacent to the main entrance, where for our money the acoustics were superior and we had a better, more direct view of the subtitles. It was really during this second half of the show that it started to come together for me. The pace of the narrative picked up and the musical integrity of the score helped guide the story along in ways that I found lacking in the first part.

The half siblings find love
Photo credit: On Site Opera
While I was very happy to have caught the show and to have put Milhaud on my map and I have On Site to thank for their extraordinary efforts and erudition, I also can’t help but wonder if there could have been a better use of all those resources: do something more pleasant – whether more mainstream or more rare. In this case, one time through this tangle of an opera was enough. What else can you show me?

– Lei & Lui

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