04 October 2010

Gotham Chamber Opera: ‘El Gato con Botas’

With this Cat, I thee wed:
Sierra (Princess); Brancato (Cat Puppeteer); Verm (Miller); Costa-Jackson (Cat Vocalist)

Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s opera El Gato con Botas (Puss in Boots) is popular enough in Spain that friends there have expressed surprise any time I admitted that I’d never heard the piece. “¿Como es posible? El Gato con Botas is not famous around the world?” Thanks to the always-adventurous Neal Goren and his Gotham Chamber Opera company here in New York, I’ve heard El Gato at last (October 1), and I’m hard-pressed to think of reasons it oughtn’t be standard rep in America, too.

Written at the height of Francisco Franco’s regime, Montsalvatge’s score is designed to charm, not to offend; it runs a friendly hour to tell a beloved tale (one of my boyhood favorites) with ingratiating melody and abundant opportunity for crowd-pleasing, family-friendly theatrical effects. Performed by another of the attractive young casts that are Gotham’s trademark, augmented by Mark Down’s puppets and stage directed by Moisés Kaufman, El Gato plays at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street through October 10.

Happily Ever After

Since its renovation several years ago, this theater has been home to a number of family-friendly, theatrically imaginative entertainments in limited run, but few boast the broad literary appeal and musical sophistication of El Gato. A longer run — or a return engagement — would be easily justified.

Montsalvatge alternates vivid dramatic scenes with impressionistic orchestral interludes, and he does an admirable job of keeping this work short and sweet. I could willingly have listened to mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Cat in an El Gato of Wagnerian dimensions: three acts and five hours would barely suffice to contain my pleasure. She lavished a lush, supple instrument on us, with just enough meowing to raise an extra smile; with wide, expressive eyes, she expertly conveyed the Cat’s wily character. She hardly needed the puppet that joined her onstage.

The Cat’s Meow: Ginger Costa-Jackson

Much the same can be said of bass Kevin Burdette’s drunken Ogre and Kyle Pfortmiller’s capricious, pint-size King. I’d heard Burdette at Glimmerglass and New York City Opera and knew him to be a theatrical dynamo, but Pfortmiller’s work is new to me; unlike Costa-Jackson and Burdette, he operated much of his character’s puppetry (mostly a costume suspended from his neck). Both men delivered just the right measure of monstrous/tyrannical fearsomeness, leavened with humor and suavely sung.

Only two characters weren’t portrayed by puppets, leaving all the work to individual singers. The Miller is one of the most passive male characters in fairy-tale literature, and baritone Craig Verm played him as something of a brutish fool, only reluctantly dissuaded from turning the Cat into an article of quality headwear, thereafter doing as he’s told. Nadine Sierra’s visually and vocally luscious Princess suggested that, once Happily Ever After is declared, the Miller will always need to bow down before her.

While Costa-Jackson carried off the vocal honors, all these young people sang splendidly, with clean lines and artful expression. I’ve come to expect this from conductor Goren, who brings out the best in young singers and who rehearses them until they’re so confident vocally that they can dare challenging stagecraft.

Maestro Goren

The gorgeous, beautifully proportioned New Victory proved a much more congenial venue than the company’s original home, the Harry de Jur Playhouse at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, where the acoustics were as hard and unforgiving as the seats. (The orchestra pit there was tiny, too.)

Here as elsewhere, Goren has proved himself adept at an array of styles, while remaining true to the virtues of clarity and coordination. In repertory spanning centuries, I’ve never once heard him overpower a young singer with his orchestra, and in El Gato, using Albert Guinovart’s chamber orchestration, he evinced respect and affection for a work that is far more staid than many others that he champions. The musical results were never less than enchanting — quite rightly so.

Given the overall success of the production and the enthusiastic reception by the audience on October 1, it seems almost churlish to ask for more, or to point out my reservations. But I had a few, and those lie precisely with what seemed the most popular elements of the evening: the puppetry and the stage direction.

Merrily, merrily: Sierra and Pfortmiller
In the foreground, the puppet representing the “drowning” Miller

Director of the Tectonic Theater Project, Kaufman is best-known for socially progressive, theatrically innovative productions such as The Laramie Project and I Am My Own Wife; born in Venezuela, he was an excellent choice to direct this production, which uses both the Spanish libretto and an English-language translation. Puppetmaster Down hails from London’s Blind Summit Theatre, and he provided the bunraku Trouble in Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly at the Met. (For that production as for this, Nick Barnes designed the puppets — quite ingeniously.) Seán Curran choreographed the witty, graceful dances for humans and puppets alike.

Despite the best efforts of Kaufman and Down to focus our attention, we often didn’t know where to look. Puss required three puppeteers: one crouching behind him but the other two standing — and emoting — on either side of him. Of course we watched their faces, as well as the puppet. Beside them stood another performer, Costa-Jackson, also enacting the character, though (confusingly?) costumed as a peasant woman while she sang a trouser role.

Wabbit Season: Hunting for focus.

Whenever our eyes followed Costa-Jackson’s lovely voice to her lovely face, then we were distracted from the puppet, and when we looked at the puppeteers, we saw less of the puppet itself and of Costa-Jackson, too. And so on. It was difficult to appreciate the efforts of all these fine performers when we were pretty much certain to miss out on something any time we looked at one and not at all the others.

My larger reservation concerns the tone of the staging and its relation to the music. Here, Kaufman favored entertainment at the expense of the story Montsalvatge was trying to tell: nowhere is the composer’s score as broadly comical as Kaufman’s staging. And when Goren has gone to all the trouble of bringing this music to New York, and playing it so beautifully, shouldn’t the staging complement it, rather than upstaging it? We applauded the first appearance of the Cat puppet — how could we not? But in the process, we couldn’t hear several bars of the overture. That’s a shame.

Cat puppeteers Jonothan Lyons; Aaron Schroeder & Stefano Brancato
join singers Verm & Costa-Jackson

Maybe kids today need more aggressive entertainment than Montsalvatge could foresee (or General Franco would permit), and this production clearly targets children, as well as adults. However, the disparity in tone between staging and music was sometimes too great for my comfort.

For example, just prior to the scene in which the “Marquis de Carrabas” is saved from drowning, Montsalvatge gives us an orchestral interlude that depicts the rippling waters of the river. Down and Curran provided some beautifully choreographed puppetry, as various fish glided by — but then they undercut the mood when Puss appeared, wearing a diving mask and snorkel. The staging team earned a big but cheap laugh by betraying the music.

A little while later, we saw how right this production could be. In the orchestral interlude that introduces the Ogre, we saw his six body parts (head, torso, four limbs) emerge separately on the darkened stage; they swirled and came together in a way that set up the character’s size, his strangeness, and his ability to transform himself through magic. The movements matched the spirit of the music perfectly, and this felicity continued throughout the scene, as Burdette joined in to complete the Ogre’s portrayal.

Like Gollum on steroids: The Ogre meets the Cat.
(That’s Kevin Burdette at far right.)

I can’t help wishing the entire production had been so successful. Again, the audience loved every minute of the evening, and for the most part, I did, too. From the get-go, audiences have flocked to Gotham productions not only for repertory rarities but also for show-business savvy; the company’s tickets are often the hottest in town — even as the balance between theater and music has been particularly delicate.

Striking the right balance is always tough, for any company, but I’m hoping that, in future productions (such as the upcoming Eliogabalo, by Cavalli), Goren and his colleagues will trust a little more in the music that they’ve worked so diligently to bring to light.

El Gato con Botas (Puss in Boots)
A Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Project production
In association with Blind Summit Theatre
At the New Victory Theater
209 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Performances in Spanish Oct. 7 and 9 (7 PM)
terpreted performance Oct. 8 (7 PM)
Matinée performances Oct. 9 (2 PM), 10 (12 PM)
Closing performance Oct. 10 (5 PM)
Contact the New Victory Theatre for tickets.


Katie said...

Neal Goren had an interview with The New Victory on their blog - it's pretty cool! My favorite part is when he says "You make your own destiny." The website is www.newvictorytheater.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

GCO's website appears to have removed references to Eliogabalo ... i wonder if it's "off"?

William V. Madison said...

Dear Anonymous --

I just spoke with Neal Goren, as part of an exclusive interview that will appear on this blog within the week (I hope). He confirms that Eliogabalo is still on the Gotham Chamber Opera schedule. It sounds very exciting, indeed.