Gilbert, AXIOM Ensemble ham it up with Gruber’s “Gloria”

Fri May 30, 2014 at 1:26 pm
Lauren Snouffer stars in the title role of HK Gruber's "Gloria: A Pig's Tale," presented by the New York Philharmonic THursday night at the Met Museum. Photo: Paula Lobo

Lauren Snouffer stars in the title role of HK Gruber’s “Gloria: A Pig’s Tale,” presented in the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Thursday night at the Met Museum. Photo: Paula Lobo

Of the myriad roles that Alan Gilbert plays at the New York Philharmonic, one that suits him comfortably is the ham. From his heart-to-hearts with the Grim Reaper, which were posted on YouTube in advance of performances of Le Grand Macabre, to appearances on Sesame Street, he’s been refreshingly game for hijinks rarely undertaken by classical conductors.

And that same playfulness showed through as he led a new production of HK Gruber’s cabaret opera, Gloria: A Pig’s Tale, which premiered as part of the Philharmonic’s inaugural Biennial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thursday night.

Completed in 1994, Gloria is one of the older works presented at this festival touting the new. However, a young cast of five energetic singers, the Juilliard School’s AXIOM ensemble, and director Doug Fitch of Giants Are Small animated this eclectic work that references Mother Goose, George Orwell, and Kurt Weill in equal measures.

Gloria, “the prettiest pig in the Poconos”—a geographically specific nod to a local audience—looks like a porcine Shirley Temple in Fitch’s two-dimensional cartoon-like masks that the opera singers wear like baseball caps. Her fellow pigs, who all have short blond hair and angry furrowed brows, are jealous of Gloria’s long curly locks. They drive her from her sty with a fascist “March of the Pedigreed Pigs,” and into the arms of a local butcher. Such is the work of Gruber where evil and darkness simmer underneath childlike stories, while jazz-inflected tunes and Teutonic oom-pah melodies mix with menacing discord.

By the time a boar named Rodrigo saves Gloria’s bacon there have been a few too many lame puns (“pretty as a pig-ture” was particularly irksome). The couple finds marital bliss, and settles down in their own sty with three mud-loving piglets. However, there’s still some unease in Gruber’s happily ever after, as Rodrigo ends the opera muttering “trapped for life.”

Fitch’s production tended to the emphasize fun and whimsy over the more nefarious elements. Gloria’s encounters with other farmyard and wild characters, such as duo prophetic scat-singing oxen who sway together in union and a trio of frogs croak in three-part harmony, were vehicles for Fitch’s colorful comic-strip type puppets that hung off the singers bodies. Even the musicians, who played a vivid account of Gruber’s lively score, joined the fun. Nestled in a barnyard set with turf carpeting, bales of hay and music stands that double as fence posts, they heralded intermission by leaving the stage one-by-one, Gilbert included, until only the exasperated violinist Fabiola Kim remained.

However, some of the strongest and most effective moments of the opera came when danger pierced through the production’s veil of cuteness. Underneath her cardboard snout, soprano Lauren Snouffer provided limpid coloratura as Gloria, and brought true empathy to the title role that has more dimension than many of opera’s bipedal heroines. When Gloria realizes her prince is a butcher—he menacingly sharpens an oversized phallus of a knife while salivating at the thought of roast pork—she was both terrorized and resigned to her fate, a victim willing to martyr herself to end her suffering.

As Rodrigo, Kevin Burdette, a resonant bass, strutted around the stage, mugging with a giant boar’s head strapped to his waist. Despite an announcement that he was suffering from an illness, tenor Alexander Lewis’s didn’t seem hampered as Gerhard, the leader of the short-haired pigs, or as the butcher, though he did seem to hold back from full-voiced crooning in Gloria’s dream sequence when he first appears as her Prince. Both Carlton Ford, a dynamic young baritone, and Brenda Patterson, a sensitive mezzo-soprano, threw themselves fully into myriad supporting roles, from sty-mates to sausages.

Gloria marked Alan Gilbert’s first appearance in this inaugural year of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial, and much will be read into his view of contemporary music as the 11-day festival unfolds. But his intentions on Thursday evening were clear: to invoke both senses of the Biennial’s double entendre of a tag line: “Let’s Play.”

Gloria will be repeated 7 p.m. tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday. The New York Philharmonic’s Biennial runs through June 7.

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