Cartoonish direction, indifferent vocalism make for leaden Martinů double bill at Gotham Chamber Opera
Why is comic opera so seldom funny? One can start with the fact that opera itself is better suited to drawn-out, heightened dramatic expression than to the fleetness often demanded by comedy. Classical singers, moreover, do not always possess the subtle, quicksilver comic instincts that guarantee laughs. Filtering the humor to an audience through a foreign language does not help matters, and often results in exaggerated physicality to score comic points.
Those stumbling blocks were manifest in Gotham Chamber Opera’s double bill of two comic one-acts by Bohuslav Martinů, Alexandre bis and Comedy on the Bridge performed Tuesday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College. The two works themselves were part of the problem: Despite occasional flashes of wit, they are just not all that funny, nor are they musically interesting enough to sustain even the brief, 35-minute length of each.
Gotham Chamber Opera could not have lavished a lovelier production on this pairing. Cameron Anderson’s largely black-and-white sets melded so organically with Clifton Taylor’s ever-changing lighting design that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Changes in light levels and subtle projections gave an evolving, at times three-dimensional aspect to the proceedings. The costumes by Fabio Toblini were wonderfully apt and comically stylized, suggesting in Alexandre bis the world of Paul Poiret in early twentieth-century Paris, and in Comedy on the Bridge a mythical mittel-European border town during the same era. (Both works were composed in the mid-30s but looked back a decade or so to the influence of Surrealism, making the choice of setting feel appropriate.) Gotham’s artistic director Neal Goren conducted the chamber orchestra with a nice sense of the period, and admirably kept the volume down in support of the singers.
Alexandre bis, with its jokey libretto by André Wurmer, is set in the bourgeois home of a Parisian gentleman who tests his wife’s fidelity by posing as his own cousin from the U.S. The ruse inspires a feverishly sexual dream on the part of the wife, causing the plan to backfire when the wife decides she really is ready for some extramarital action. There are echoes of Così in the score and a quote from Gounod’s Faust in the libretto; Martinů utilizes a heavy piano component which gives a flavor of 1920s cabaret.
All of this might have worked had director James Marvel not forced his cast of young singers to mug, posture, and pose relentlessly, reducing everyone to the lowest common comic denominator. By putting quote marks around every performance, and slathering on the irony with a trowel, he turned it all into a very leaden affair. The audience sat through it stonily, with barely a titter of laughter.
Following an intermission, the parlor set of Alexandre bis was modified to depict a bridge against a lush forest for Comedy on the Bridge. In this absurdist anti-war farce, with a libretto by Martinů based on a play by Vaclav Kliment Klipera, two bickering couples and a melancholy schoolmaster are forced by opposing border guards to remain stranded on a bridge between two countries while a battle rages around them. The same singers—plus one more—were once again put through the motions of exaggerated cartoonish shtick, which induced the same numbing effect on the audience. Thirty-five minutes felt more like 35 days. Martinů’s meandering, ho-hum score did not help.
The singers might have had a chance to make a better impression had they not had to remember so many superfluous poses and gestures in addition to their music and texts. Alexandre bis was given in its original French, a language which sat well with nobody onstage except basso Joseph Beutel, who sang it—and spoke it—with idiomatic aplomb. As the wife, Armande, soprano Jenna Siladie looked lovely in Toblini’s exquisite costumes, but sang with occluded tone; as the maid Philomene, Mexican mezzo Cassandra Zoé Velasco made an indifferent vocal impression and suffered from heavily Latinized French. Baritone Jarrett Ott as Alexandre and tenor Jason Slayden as a would-be seducer had good stage presence but were both beset by intrusive tremolos. Only Beutel, as a singing portrait of Alexandre, displayed evidence of fine-tuned vocal and dramatic talent.
Once freed of the French language, Jenna Siladie seemed like an entirely different performer in Comedy on the Bridge, which was sung in the original Czech. Her voice opened up and became much freer, revealing a pearly timbre, and she appeared much more at ease onstage. Ott and Beutel clearly enjoyed playing randy country bumpkins, though Ott’s tremolo problem persisted, as did that of Jason Slayden, who played the part of the schoolmaster with a single hangdog expression. Mezzo Abigail Fischer, the additional cast member, though plummy of tone, also suffered from the rapid-vibrato problem, which seems to be making its way through Gotham Chamber Opera these days like a nasty cold.
Alexandre Bis and Comedy on the Bridge run through October 18. gothamchamberopera.org