Sunday, October 31, 2010

Not (just) for children

Puss in Boots -- Gotham Chamber Opera, 10/2/2010
Mushegain, Sierra, Verm, Pfortmiller, Burdette / Goren
L'enfant et les sortileges / La chute de la maison Usher -- Pocket Opera of NY, 10/15/2010
Merdinian, Eskandani, Royal, Mitchell, Rivera, Kranak, Smith, King, Peritz, Kuttler, Hartnett, Peters, Rohrs, Bangstad, Horowitz / Hsu, Lee
Roberts, Okaly, Royal, Rivera / Hsu, Lee

October brought opportunities to see two smaller New York companies, each in a distinct phase of existence.

At ten years old, Gotham Chamber Opera is already pretty established -- artistically, at least (I don't know the finances). Its eclectic projects have been attracting well-known collaborators -- next season, for example, brings a new Nico Muhly opera co-commissioned with Opera Co of Philadelphia (and Music-Theatre Group, an organization unknown to me).

This fall's production was another eclectic blending of work and names: a children's production in a children's Broadway theater (the New Victory), featuring some theater-side folks and Blind Summit Theatre, the London bunraku puppet group remembered by local operagoers for the wooden Trouble in Minghella's Madama Butterfly. The double- and triple-cast lineup featured young singers you might see at (and recognize from) a good regional production, including (for example) one Lindemann grad and a recent Met Council winner. The rare piece, in this case, was a setting of "Puss in Boots" (El gato con botas) by Xavier Montsalvatge, a composer likely familiar -- if at all -- only from his excellent songs.

It could have been a disaster, but the disparate parts in fact added up about as well as one could have wished: the music (well led by conductor and company artistic director Neal Goren) turned out to be a sunny neoclassical romp, the singers uniformly good (this evening show starred the one Cat I hadn't previously heard, but she -- mezzo Karin Mushegain -- was quite good; meanwhile even Nadine Sierra as the Princess was reasonably tolerable for this skeptic), and -- a wardrobe malfunction for the puppet Cat notwithstanding -- the well-imagined physical comedy of the production seemed to delight both adults and children. (The absurd Alice-in-Wonderland court of the King was a nice touch.)

The only caveat? Well, it was done as a kids' show, and the very small amount of non-G rated content in the piece was altered or glossed over to that end. (The Cat, for example, does not actually kill the cute rabbits he brings as an offering to the King.) Still, it turned out to be a pleasant treat, if a sugary one.

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Pocket Opera of New York -- a company in its second season -- took a very different tack with its children's opera presentation. The stage direction of Hofstra's Isabel Milenski magnified every bit of the inner modernist in Ravel and Colette's "L'enfant et les sortileges", turning a basically charming tale of childhood wonder (and, yes, budding sexuality and guilt) into a truly disturbing piece about the usual 20th-century hangups (sexual compulsion, violence, a bit of blasphemy...), unfit for any child's viewing. It was an interesting and memorable take, well sold by the young cast, but the whole was sort of joyless: some things are best left as subtext.

Milenski's all-out approach paid huge dividends, however, in the second part of the double bill. Debussy's partial, very free, and unfinished short adaptation of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" is something like a bizarro-world version of his completed operatic masterpiece Pelleas, with the fate-laden mystical space between Maeterlinck's characters warped, in the Poe, into claustrophobic madness. The performers here -- particularly baritone Ricardo Rivera, intense and commanding as Roderick Usher -- seized well on the dramatic opportunities of lunacy to put together a great short fragment of no-holds-barred opera.

PONY's youth showed in its limited resources: both operas were done before 65 seats in the back of the Bechstein (piano) Showroom, accompanied by a four-hand piano reduction rather than an actual orchestra. But the resourceful and atmospheric lighting of Lucrecia Briceno seamlessly turned the ad hoc stage into operatic spaces, and the musical preparation seemed undiminished. Anyway the company, led by director Jimmy Smith, doesn't lack for ambition: Handel's Alcina is planned for March -- in, I believe, a somewhat less tiny space.

*     *     *

All performances were in English, though several other performances of the Montsalvatge were in Spanish.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.