Gotham Chamber Opera puts a delightful seasonal spin on children’s classic
Just in time to compete with family-oriented holiday presentations, Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Productions on Saturday night revived their triumphant 2010 production of Xavier Montsalvatge’s 1947 opera El gato con botas. Performed in Spanish with English supertitles, the production’s combination of dazzling puppetry and joyful music makes for an experience that rises high above the regular run of Nutcrackers and carol concerts.
Written to a libretto by Néstor Luján, Montsalvatge’s opera recounts the classic fairy tale of an extraordinarily clever cat who uses only his wits and sartorial prowess to win the hand of a beautiful princess for his penniless master.
Moisés Kaufman’s inspired direction turns this diminutive piece (barely an hour, with no intermission) into an enchanting experience. Slick, attractive sets by Andromache Chalfant create vivid scenes with a minimum of complication, helped along by subtle lighting by David Lander.
But it’s the puppets, designed by Nick Barnes and directed by Mark Down, that make this production a joy to watch, instilling the story with a fanciful and whimsical sense of humor. The ogre, which our hero must defeat in order to secure a suitable palace for his master, is the pièce de résistance. Each of the monster’s limbs is controlled by a separate puppeteer; the whole lumbers about with odd grace. Kevin Burdette’s taut, leathery bass gave the beast comic bluster.
Voicing the titular feline, Ginger Costa-Jackson sang with a hard-edged, amber tone. She was a model of consistency, her voice solid from top to bottom, her phrasing sensitive and intelligent. Craig Verm brought a warm, gravelly tone to the role of the miller, the cat’s master, and Andrea Carroll’s bright, ringing soprano gave her princess an innocent charm. Stefanos Koroneos drew plenty of laughs as a bumbling, benign king.
Montsalvatge’s score is a multifaceted, joyful box of gems, and the Gotham Chamber Opera orchestra played it capably under the baton of Neal Goren. There is a good deal of scampering excitement in the music, but at times it opens up into flowing lyricism: The lovely aria in which the cat reads a love letter to the princess could almost have been written by Rossini.
The theater at the Museo del Barrio on 105th street is a perfect fit for this production, a stately but cozy 600-seat auditorium decorated with stunning murals by Willy Pogany depicting scenes from children’s stories, including–what else?–“Puss in Boots.”
El gato con botas runs through December 14 at El Museo del Barrio. gothamchamberopera.org