Whoo-boy, Labor Day comes and bam, that’s it for summer! It’s cold and rainy, long pants are already on sale, and the pumpkin spice latte is back. To think that just last week I was in my summer frocks, taking in an opera over a cold one at the local pub.
Classical music outside the concert hall is making the news, though it’s really a return to the form’s origins, when any space for merrymaking included room for performing. The room in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, where Monteverdi’s Orfeo was premiered, for example, was not an opera house but a room, performers smack in the faces of their patrons:
One felt similarly crowded – though slightly less regal – at Jimmy’s No. 43, last week, where three lovely ladies from Morningside Opera performed their pastiche of arias from various English Baroque operas about The Judgment of Paris. 50 people packed into the “champagne room” behind the bar at Jimmy’s, where things were so tight that a portable electronic keyboard stood in for a full-size harpsichord.
The stuffy room with the clamoring hordes next door invoked what was likely an atmosphere similar to the premiere of these works, the standing-room masses out for a farthing of entertainment. They set the pastiche as a beauty pageant burlesque in which Paris judges the goddesses. An opera as a burlesque show? Sacrilege? Hardly, not when Paris himself says in an aria that he’ll judge the ladies when their clothes are off. The idea worked, with different archetypes of burlesque bringing out what is already in the music.
After each declaring herself in an introductory aria, the goddesses obligingly shed their fabric coverlets. Athena (Brett Umlauf) amplified her warlike music with an impressive set of biceps and a phallic sword. She stripped down to some golden unmentionables, paddling Paris’ backside all along. Next came jealous Juno (Amber Youell), whose goth makeup and dark voice revealed her to be the S&M girl of the night. Wielding a whip and pushing Paris about like a naughty boy, she got the biggest laugh of the night on the line “happily you’ll reign below,” when she seated him in front of her, his face strategically placed. I thought the pasties beneath her black mesh top were sweet little bows, but on closer inspection they turned out to be electrical tape. Not to be outdone, Venus (Brittany Palmer) enchanted Paris with the cooing, whispery ballad of the night, drawing giggles from the crowd when she feigned self-pleasure on an extended, melismatic “aaaahhhh.”
The launch of Opera Moderne at Galapagos was the meat in my Baroque sandwich. The new group (production company? concept? performance troupe?) presented a recital of three works by important modern (contemporary? modernist? moderne?) composers. Small-scale for an opera company, but perhaps that’s what makes it moderne.
Kristin Sampson jumped in to replace an ailing singer, singing excerpts from Tobias Picker’s Emmeline with convincing emotion and drama. Laura Strickling offered a compelling performance of Libby Larsen’s Songs from Letters, based on Calamity Jane’s letters to her daughter. Both singers had the kind of big, beautiful voices you could swim in all day, though I must say I find the music limiting. Gorgeous in so many ways and successful, I prefer music that acknowledges that atonality happened, and addresses that tradition as well as the romantics. Just sayin’.
The somewhat non-dramatic first half of the program was compensated for by a gorgeous performance of George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, featuring mezzo-soprano Suzanne Chadwick and an ensemble conducted by Carmine Aufiero. Performing barefoot and in a stylized primitive garb, Chadwick’s technique appeared to be made of nothing but musicianship, with meaning behind each eerie vocalise and declamation. Aufiero gave Lorca’s haunting texts the space they needed, the sounds just as compelling as the silences, accompanied only by the sounds of water circulating in the Galapagos lake. “It doesn’t give you much to hang onto,” said my companion afterwards. If what you’re looking for is ear candy, then I agree. But what Crumb lacks in tunes he compensates for in timelessness. Oh how I’d love to learn this piece!
I returned to the Baroque on Thursday with Opera Omnia‘s return to Le Poisson Rouge in the Village, performing an English version of Cavalli’s Giasone. The stunning work – filled with magic, mistaken identity, musical comedy, and satire – was made more immediate by the performance in the vernacular, although Cavalli also works perfectly well without translation (as I heard earlier this summer). The production, dynamically staged by Crystal Manich, played up the street-theater elements with an unembarrassed approach to portraying these characters as the recognizably human creatures they are.
The acoustics left something to be desired, but even the microphone was incorporated into the staging, with arias presented as torch songs under a spot light. The excellent lighting design by Evan Purcell and the simple but evocative set by Lauren Brown brought everyone out of the bar and, if not into Medea’s palace, then into the divine human drama that we all recognize.