27 September 2014

Martinů bis, and Make It a Double: Previewing Gotham’s Latest Adventure

Ciel! Mon mari!
Siladie and Ott cavort in Alexandre.
Photo by Richard Termine. All illustrations courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Before we consider Gotham Chamber Opera’s upcoming double-bill of one-acts by Bohuslav Martinů, let us first consider the potential for confusion for any stranger (or, for that matter, a humble blogger) who wanders unaware into the rehearsal space at a dance studio downtown. Attractive young women in casual street clothes. Hunky young men in gym clothes. Is this an opera run-through or a Zumba class?

Granted, most Zumba classes don’t have live piano accompaniment and a conductor. But the cast of Gotham’s Alexandre bis got quite a workout the other day. Director James Marvel’s staging has them leaping and prancing around the room from start to finish, with highly stylized movement in a fascinating cross between Feydeau farce and Absurdist comedy. Sung in French, Alexandre bis will be paired with Martinů’s better-known The Comedy on the Bridge (both written in 1937) in performances from October 14–18 at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater in midtown Manhattan.

Give or take Comedy on the Bridge, most of Martinů’s work remains phenomenally obscure in the United States, but this isn’t the first time Gotham has gone to his well. Twelve years ago, when Gotham was still the Henry Street Chamber Opera, the company presented Martinů’s Hlas Lesa (The Voice of the Forest) and Les Larmes du Couteau (The Tears of the Knife). The production was a sold-out hit — and the first time fans lined up around the block waiting for returned tickets, as conductor Neal Goren recalls. It was a taste of things to come, and soon enough, Gotham productions would reliably and perennially prove some of the hottest tickets in town, playing to critical acclaim and avid fans.

Cameron Anderson’s set design for Alexandre.

Still, the sight of so many people lined up in the snow for a little-known Czech composer’s operas “planted itself on my memory,” Goren says, “and as we were planning our upcoming fourteenth season, I thought it high time to present another compelling Martinů double-bill. I was egged on by Yveta Synek Graff, the world’s leading advocate of Czech opera, who helped prepare our 2002 double-bill.”

Goren, who’s Gotham’s founder and artistic director, as well, says that Martinů’s chamber operas were among his principal inspirations when he started the company. Though he really doesn’t remember when he first encountered them, a series of recordings on the Supraphon label kept them on his radar screen, and he’s become friends with Ales Brezhina, director of the Martinů Institute in Prague. But only after the success of his first seasons (landmark productions of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Milhaud’s Les Malheurs d’Orphée) did Goren feel confident that New York audiences would turn out for programming quite so obscure.

Particularly in Alexandre, Martinů’s playful sensibility and Gotham’s freshness are so closely linked that it’s hard to tell which informs which. A young husband tests his wife’s fidelity, Così Fan Tutte–style, by shaving his beard and showing up as his own American cousin. Up to now, the wife has been fending off the advances of another admirer, but after she meets “Alexander twice,” all bets are off. The hoary adage “Jamais deux sans trois” takes on new meaning.

Fabio Toblini’s costume design for Armande, Alexandre’s wife.

Martinů’s score sounds much like something Kurt Weill would have written, if he’d stayed in France two more years, and the libretto (by André Wurmser, the dear friend of my friend Stanley Karnow) features a singing portrait and a bedeviled dream sequence. Opportunities abound to expose audiences to new repertoire and to showcase bright, multitalented young singers — things that Gotham and Goren strive to do every time they go to work.

At the run-through, the entire cast of Alexandre seemed ready to impress audiences. It was hard to believe they’d only just begun to rehearse this piece, and Marvel and Goren hardly needed to give notes afterward. Yet again I found cause to admire young American artists as a group: they really can tackle any assignment you throw at them. Everyone was terrific, and soprano Jenna Siladie (as the wife), mezzo Cassandra Zoe Velasco* (as a better-behaved Despina), and baritone Jarrett Ott (as Alexandre) struck me as especially promising additions to the long roster of Gotham artists whose work I’ll seek out in the future. Comedy on the Bridge will feature the exciting mezzo Abigail Fischer, whom I’m eager to hear again, and I was delighted to see a veteran of Fort Worth Opera’s Ariadne, bass (and Danish–American rights activist) Aaron Sørensen, in the ensemble, too.

Martinů remains “a composer unknown by all but the most obsessed music cognoscenti,” Goren observes, and Goren himself has conducted virtually every note of Martinů’s music that I’ve heard in live performance. But thus far every one of these operas has proved worthwhile, and you can’t beat the thrill of discovery. Gotham’s latest exploration of Martinů’s work promises to be a memorable adventure.

Toblini’s costume design for Oskar, Armande’s would-be lover.

*NOTE: Evidently Cassandra Zoe Velasco is from Mexico City, but before you correct me, please remember that Mexico is part of North America. So I’m not really wrong. Thank you.

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