Gotham Chamber Opera knows art when it sees it

October 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm
Gotham Chamber Opera performed "Baden Baden" Wednesday night at John Jay College.

Gotham Chamber Opera performed “Baden Baden” Wednesday night at John Jay College.

There’s a question running throughout Gotham Chamber Opera’s “Baden-Baden” – an evening of four short one-act operas – that the various singer–emcees ask the audience: “What is art?”

“Baden-Baden” reprises an evening from the Baden-Baden Festival of Contemporary Music from July 17, 1927. The aristocrats, plutocrats and monarchs who visited the local spas asked Paul Hindemith to organize an evening of entertainment around that question.

Gotham Chamber Opera is reviving that in new productions of Hindemith’s Hun und zurückl (There and Back) and Darius Milhaud’s L’enlevement d’Europe (The Abduction of Europe), Ernst Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea) and Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel.

Did the patrons that summer night feel they had gained insight into the question? The audience Wednesday night at John Jay College might have. One of the pieces was a cogent argument on art, although in this entertaining if messy event, it’s unclear that the opera company realized exactly what they had accomplished.

Along with the trite question – which through repetition came off as both hectoring and patronizing – the evening was pegged to the painter Georg Baselitz, credited as a co-production designer, along with Court Watson.

The opening tableau, for Milhaud’s opera, was an art gallery, filled with chic patrons admiring a large Baselitz canvas of a reddish-orange disembodied arm. The conceit in the staging was that the artist was Jupiter, dressed in a white suit printed with a pattern to match the picture.

But Baselitz disappeared from the stage until the final opera, Mahagonny, which was set in an art gallery with the same painting from the opening and various other black and white canvasses dangling around … four treadmills? Some sort of installation? It made no sense because the direction gave no reason for the singers to be in a gallery.

Although his neo-Expressionism is a nice pictorial compliment to Weill’s music, the artist’s presence seems arbitrary, as if there was no deeper connection than an acquaintance between him and the producers. There may be a reason his work is on stage, but none of the productions show why.

Everything proved consistently successful musically, however, and credit is shared by Hindemith’s original conception and two of the stagings. The music identifies an epoch where composers were assimilating the music of the streets into formal classical structures, while trying to maintain traditional forms.

There’s lots of punchy march and dance rhythms underlying more complex vocal lines. It’s a bright, acidic sound. That sound supports a consistently acerbic social commentary: all the composers mock the values and conventions of bourgeois life in one way or another. Milhaud’s eight-minute micro-opera has key details like the chorus lowing, enthralled to Jupiter’s guise as a bull (oddly, Europa doesn’t sing, she’s merely ravished). Gotham may rely on Baselitz’s art and reputation, but the meaning of a well-dressed crowd worshipping an artist in a gallery is clear.

Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse is an acerbic tale to start, and Toch and librettist Benno Elkan drive the point home by making the royals and their courtiers vapid and vain. The production hung on the conceit that the action was being filmed for reality TV, with the characters playing directly to the camera, then to the audience via projection. Simple, smart and effective. Milhaud’s piece is too brief to be anything substantial but here the performers shined.

Helen Donath, absent from the New York stage for some time, has a cabaret singer’s style and sass, and as the Queen her soprano still rings with the clarity of a bell; Maeve Högland and Jennifer Rivera, the Princess and a Nurse, were also in great voice and hammed it up with relaxed confidence.

The women’s singing was so fine all evening it tended to overshadow the men, who were solid without having the same brilliance: bass John Cheek, baritone Michael Mayes and tenors Matthew Tuel and Daniel Montenegro played, respectively, King, Chancellor, Minister and the Prince in der Erbse. They also filled Charlie, Billy, Bobby and Jimmy in Mahagonny.

The singing and playing in Weill’s piece was fine (conductor Neal Goren got the right balance of romance and wit out of the orchestra) and the stage direction by Paul Curran was a suitable mix of blocking, dance, audience participation (Donath and Rivera as Jessie and Bessie pick a fellow’s pocket singing the “Alabama Song”), and fellatio (depicted at least three times in the past year on the New York opera stage). Weill’s work was a pleasure to hear despite the distracting, meaningless set. None of these pieces even hinted at an answer to “What is art?”

Hindemith’s bizarre Hun und zurück! cleared up the matter, at least for the evening. It’s a twelve-minute dramatic palindrome: Helen (Högland) breakfasts with her aunt Emma (Jessica Ann Best in a non-singing role), welcomes the return of her husband Robert (Tuell), receives a letter from her lover via the Maid (Rachelle Pike), is murdered in jealousy by her husband (her body borne away by Professor Mayes and Ambulance Driver Cheek), who then commits suicide by sticking his head in the oven.

But then, deus ex machina, a Wise Man appears – Montenegro, costumed like Andy Warhol – who, commandeering logic in service of god-like powers, declares the action to be reversed, and watches in knowing pleasure as the characters return to life and the piece returns to the start. All the while, the action has been filmed and the preceding timeline is projected in the background. As strange as it sounds, it actually does work, and produces an iron-clad musical and dramatic logic.

Hindemith’s answer is that art is the set of rules he made for his own piece, it is what he declares it to be. And he’s right.

There are four more performances through October 29. gothamchamberopera.org


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