Since 2001, Gotham Chamber Opera has specialized in the production of major operas – well known, not known, new, traditional, experimental – and has developed a reputation for intelligence and a consistently high level of artistic integrity. This pair of Martinu comic operas, sung by an enthusiastic young cast performing on a gorgeously set stage, preserves Gotham Chamber Opera’s fine reputation.
The first opera, Alexandre bis (translated as “Alexander Twice”), to a libretto by André Wurmser, is an absurdist domestic farce, set in middle-class, early twentieth century Paris and centers on a husband’s mistrust of his wife’s fidelity, the wife’s infatuation with the swaggering Texan “cousin” whom she knows to be her husband in disguise, the persistence of the wife’s long-time would-be lover, and the wild discombobulations of both the daily reality and the lurid psychological dream-sequence that take place in an otherwise unremarkable bourgeois household. This production constituted the opera’s premiere in this country.
In theme and subject, fidelity tests, disguises and wanton lust are familiar territory: this particular plot has roots going back to ancient and medieval farce, extending through Moliere, Beaumarchais, Mozart and Da Ponte, silent cinema and the best of early live television. The pacing of Martinu’s Alexandre bis – the alternation of spoken dialogue and sung scenes – places the 1937 opera in a familiar opera buffa tradition, but plot twists such as the husband’s talking portrait locate the work right in the rich middle of French absurdist expression and surrealism between the wars. The coquettish maid’s decay-of-decent-values social commentary and the portrait’s increasingly off-center aphoristic moralizing take place as the main characters inhabit a half-witty, half-bawdy territory between stereotype and caricature.
The singers clearly enjoyed the music and each other, successfully conveying a sense of delight in what they were doing. Martinu’s music was sophisticated and fun, incorporating divergent stylistic elements and historical references to make a sound entirely, distinctively and cheerfully his own. The singing itself, however, was uneven. Soprano Jenna Siladie, as the wife Armande, did become more secure and relaxed as the complicated plot of Alexandre bis unfolded, but her voice remained serviceable and determined rather than lovely. Mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco, as the maid, was more strident than deft, though a subtle and alert responsiveness to her partner characterized her singing in duets with the husband Alexandre’s Portrait.
The men of Alexandre bis fared somewhat better in terms of their singing. Tenor Jason Slayden as Oscar, Armande’s persistently flirtatious suitor, Jarrett Ott as the husband Alexandre, and Joseph Beutel as the Portrait all sang heartily and enthusiastically. Beutel’s performance was the most mature and accomplished of these.
Some of the singers’ difficulties may have resulted from the physical exertions of their roles: their stage directions required exaggerated traditional nineteenth century comic pantomime, slapstick gestures, cliché dancing and silent screen jumpiness in rapid and constant succession. The singers demonstrated different skill levels with this physical material, so that the results were uneven. If this choreography had been minimized, these gifted singers could have concentrated on subtler aspects of acting, and the music itself could have been trusted to convey its inherent wit and comedy.
In fact, partly because there were fewer physical hijinks in the second opera, Comedy on the Bridge, the overall quality of the singing was superior to that of Alexandre bis. Siladie, Slayden, Ott and Beutel, all of whom sang in Alexandre bis, seemed surprisingly more comfortable with Czech than with French. Siladie’s voice, in particular, was more nuanced, full, flexible and warm in the second opera: like all her colleagues on the bridge, including Abigail Fischer who had not performed in Alexandre bis, she was quite marvelous.
Originally composed for radio and premiered in 1937, Comedy on the Bridge moves more smoothly than Alexandre bis: it lacks Alexandre bis‘ occasional choppiness, presenting instead a score that is more continuous and somewhat more formal. The libretto by the composer, adapted from the play by nineteenth century poet, philosopher and Czech national playwright Václav Kliment Klicpera (1792-1859), though dense with plot twists, maintains a fairly conventional structure of action within a single, brief time-frame and located in a single, confined place. Martinu’s music for Comedy on the Bridge is somewhat more conventional than for Alexandre bis, incorporating familiar Middle European motifs and recognizable narrative elements such as martial trumpets, military snare drums, bombs-bursting percussion and swelling, symphonic love passages.
The core subjects of Comedy on the Bridge are secrets, deceptions, betrayals, and personal and cerebral puzzles all set within a futile and nonsensical war. The absurdist elements here are not talking portraits or nightmare devils in tutus, but war’s fundamental stupidity with its bureaucracy of rules, enforced by the bridge sentinels’ stubborn determination to uphold pointless constraints concerning travel passes. Trapped together on the bridge, one by one, are two women, two men – fractured but energetically randy couples – and a school teacher whose hoped for problem-solving wisdom turns out to be a ludicrous obsession with a foolish riddle. As the five singers gradually sorted out their lies, infidelities and moral slips, they sang charmingly and danced through their stage directions – more restrained than those of Alexandre bis – with panache, skill and ease. The final resolution of the opera – love, peace and a goofy riddle answer – was delightful … and substantive.
These two operas are comic for performers and audience alike in two senses: first, the operas elicit immediate laughter and, second, they find a lasting, happy certainty that things can be right with the world after all. The excellent artistic direction in this double-bill production respected Martinu’s and his librettist’s sophisticated mix of such divergent comic strategies as satire, burlesque, slapstick, pantomime, dizzying plot somersaults, wordplay, identity shifts, deliberate deceptions and innocent accidents. Though on this evening, the second opera, Comedy on the Bridge, was more musically successful than Alexandre Bis, the two operas were bound together by a clear and satisfying artistic integrity.
The inventive set design was airy and unencumbered, its vertical black and white backdrop functioning equally successfully as a Parisian boulevard and a rural forest with minimal furniture and props. The costumes were witty and evocative, each perfectly matched with its character’s story and temperament; Alexandre bis‘ bawdy costumes (including Oscar the suitor’s bicycling costume, complete with a brown jersey, thickly padded codpiece) and Comedy on the Bridge’s earthy, sexy traditional peasant costumes were particularly successful.
Altogether the stage direction by James Marvel, the scenic design by Cameron Anderson, costumes by Fabio Toblini, and lighting by Clifton Taylor supported and, in fact, enhanced the singers’ performances, making Alexandre Bis good and the Comedy on the Bridge excellent. Conductor and Gotham Chamber Opera’s Founding Artistic Director Neal Goren led the orchestra masterfully, managing the balances of different sections in ways that highlighted the singing. The audience was enthusiastic, responding with appropriate laughter to the various jokes, whether visual or musical.
Overall, the strength of this two-opera performance was its integrity: comedy makes us laugh, enabling us to judge our flaws and failings more kindly than we otherwise might, and then releases us back into our post-theater reality more light-hearted than we were before. Martinu, his librettist and the Gotham Chamber Opera gave us infidelities, deceptions, wars’ madness and wild personal fears … and left us cheered and refreshed. In spite of some weaknesses in Alexandre bis, the goals and intents of these charming modern comic operas were well and fully realized.
Gotham Chamber Opera: Alexandre bis and Comedy on the Bridge (October 14, 16, 17 and 18, 2014)
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, 524 West 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-237-8000 or visit http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/theater.php
Gotham Chamber Opera, 410 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036
For more information, call 212-868-4460 or visit http://www.gothamchamberopera.org