04 November 2014

Martinů’s ‘Alexandre’ & ‘Comedy’

The Comedy cast: Ott, Siladie, Dennis, Slayden, Beutel, Fischer (standing, left to right), with Sørensen and Smith-Kotlarek (kneeling).
This and all photos by Richard Termine,
courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera.

Arriving late (gee, thanks, MTA) to the October 16 performance of Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest double-bill of one-act operas by Bohuslav Martinů, I missed the first half of the evening’s curtain-raiser, Alexandre bis. Luckily, this was the work I’d seen the Gotham team rehearse, so I knew what was going on — but this account of my impressions should be taken with an even larger dose of salt than usual. However, I saw in its entirety the evening’s second offering, The Comedy on the Bridge, and so on that subject my perspectives are (naturally) authoritative.

Comedy proved more satisfying than Alexandre, though it is in some ways the easier of the two operas: better-known, more straightforward in its plot, more appealing in its music, more universal in its message. One by one, five villagers are stranded on the titular bridge between two warring territories: nobody has a safe-conduct to cross or to go back the way she came. It’s a neat conceit, played for its absurdity and yet distilling admirably the futile illogic of war. The characters’ trust for one another breaks down, relationships suffer, personal alliances crumble and reconfigure, while Martinů’s orchestra burbles and tootles and flourishes, accentuating but never overdoing the comic points.

Alexandre — at least in the chunk that I saw — seemed even smaller on the stage of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater than it had in the rehearsal room. Martinů’s score seemed somehow richer when performed by the rehearsal pianist, and rather wispy and less satisfying in the composer’s full orchestration. Could it be that Alexandre would be better served if performed in a salon identical to the one in which this opera takes place? And I found myself wishing that stage director James Marvel had drawn greater distinctions between the movement and business of the central dream sequence and the “real-life” scenes of the opera: as it was, the cast pranced and swanned in much the same exaggerated ways throughout every scene.

Does Marvel mean that everything is supposed to be a dream? That we should take nothing seriously here? Is André Wurmser’s French libretto, which is pretty cynical about marriage, equally cynical about theater, or about life itself? These were questions to ponder. What I didn’t question in the slightest was Gotham’s justified commitment to presenting both these operas.

Dream sequence, dream cast: Ott, Velasco, and Beutel (standing) with Siladie (kneeling) in Alexandre.

While Alexandre, fully realized, may not have been my cup of tea, I was grateful for the opportunity to hear it: as the piano-only rehearsal proved, the music is worthwhile, fun, and intriguing. And Comedy is even better. In both cases, the company lavished care and imagination on the work, and conductor/artistic director Neal Goren’s enthusiasm and affection for Martinů shone through. The composer himself couldn’t have asked for a presentation better suited to afford him a fair hearing.

As ever, Goren’s gifts for fielding appealing young singers and for eliciting accomplished performances served the audience well, and the cast confirmed and built on the favorable impressions they made on me during rehearsal. As good as Jenna Siladie was in Alexandre, she was even better as Popelka in Comedy, a winsome lass who’s always just a tad slow to realize what a jam she’s getting into. Jarrett Ott proved very funny as Popelka’s jealous fiancé, and once again Cassandra Zoé Velasco’s turn as the French maid in Alexandre struck the right balance between complicity and disapproval. All three were in splendid voice — again, still, and quite possibly always.

Tenor Jason Slayden, as the sporty Oscar of Alexandre, displayed a bright, clear instrument and, as Oscar’s polar opposite, an absent-minded professor in Comedy, proved himself an excellent actor, too. Joseph Beutel, as the singing portrait in Alexandre, has to deliver several speeches in French, and he was by now thoroughly comfortable with the language. His resonant singing brought a nice touch of danger to the farmer in Comedy, and Abigail Fischer matched him as his indignant wife. Because Fischer is such an excellent musician (whom I admired extravagantly in Missy Mazzoli’s Songs from the Uproar), I’ll resist the urge to remark that her hair, luxuriously cascading ringlets, is one of the crowning glories of opera today, even when, as here, partially concealed under a kerchief in Fabio Toblini’s typically expert costume design.

As dancing Devils in Alexandre and opposing Soldiers in Bridge, Aaron Sørensen and Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek had less than the others to sing, but they approached their work with zest and character — and admirable confidence in spoken Czech. As the dour, disinterested voice of authority, Joshua Dennis made the most of his brief role.

Listening better: The villagers in Comedy
(Siladie, Ott, Slayden, Beutel, Fischer).

In all, it was an occasion to salute Neal Goren and Gotham Chamber Opera for their continuing excursions into obscure repertoire. Comedy falls with Montsalvatge’s El Gato con Botas (a delightful production which will be revived in December) and with last season’s Baden-Baden 1927: works I’d heard about but never gotten to hear in live, staged performance. (In the case of Baden-Baden, I’d yearned for some 30 years to hear the complete quadruple-bill, the hallmark of which is Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel.) Alexandre was a work I’d never heard of at all. Goren and Gotham gave me the chance to listen, to watch, and to make my own judgments of each piece, on the strength of its merits — and I had a good time doing it. Now, if experience is any guide, I’ll approach even familiar warhorses with greater insight and understanding.

Read more!