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Breaking Baden

Baden-Baden 1927 is the title Gotham Chamber Opera has given to its evening of four brief operas that premiered together at a festival in, yes, Baden-Baden on July 17, 1927. Paul Hindemith, the theoretician who headed the festival, contributed a jokey piece of his own and commissioned young, avant-garde composers from three neighboring nations: Germany (site of the festival and homeland of Kurt Weill), Austria (Ernst Toch) and France (Darius Milhaud). Besides brevity and a certain satirical attitude towards traditional operatic form, the works have little in common.  

Paul Curran’s staging at John Jay College’s Gerald Lynch Theater places the works in modern sets (by the artist Georg Baselitz) in contrasting performance styles with similar satiric ends in view. The Baselitz sets perhaps imply we are inside an artistic installation in a stylish gallery.

Milhaud’s L’enlèvement d’Europe (The Rape of Europa) is one of the composer’s musical trilogy of spoofs on the seriousness of French classicism, none of them ten minutes long.  It appears to be set at a vernissage in current Manhattan, and Court Watson’s costumes mimic such an occasion, mostly in black, Europa in red, Jupiter (an art patron perceived as a “white bull”) in hand-painted but shiny white. There is a “mooing” chorus as Jove (Daniel Montenegro, in high-flying Olympian phrases) elopes with the princess, who spurns the human suitor chosen by her father. Michael Mayes’ dark baritone was effective as the frustrated suitor, whose attacks bring retribution.

In Toch’s Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea), many of opera’s beloved forms: the parental lament, the love-at-first-sight aria, the conspirators’ trio and the grand concertato are sent up to jagged harmonies and fascinating instrumental commentary, in a tonal style fragrant with reminiscences of Russian opera. This has been staged, for some reason, as a TV reality show, with a distracting cameraman following the singers around (even into bed), his work simultaneously displayed on panels on either side of the stage. (The projections were the work of Driscoll Otto.)

Though Montenegro had a happy moment climbing down the throne to be smitten by the “foreign princess,” this was largely a ladies’ opera: Helen Donath at her wits’ end as a Margaret Dumont-ish operatic queen, Jennifer Rivera using her impressively focused mezzo as a conniving Nurse, and Maeve Höglund singing her pea-shy, insomniac princess with soaring abandon.

The reason for the heavy directorial hand finally seemed clear: Toch’s sense of fun is rather “learned,” more for scholars of opera than directed at an audience for farce. The hilarity of Once Upon a Mattress was not to found here.

Hindemith himself was not famous for his wit, but his Hin und Zurück (There and Back), the third opera, offers simpler meat to comic performers, and Curran has set it in a stiff, comic-book style that suits the material like a glove. A husband (Matthew Tuell) catches his wife (Höglund) with a note from her lover. He shoots her, medics remove the body, and he leaps from the window.

But “a wise man” (Montenegro, bewigged as Andy Warhol for some reason) appears to recommend “undoing” the damage—whereupon the entire score, four minutes to that point, is played in reverse, the suicide leaps back through the window, the medics return the body, she comes to life, the note is returned, the husband goes to work, peace is restored. Perhaps Hindemith had seen this sort of thing at the movies.

Weill’s Mahagonny-Songspiel, six numbers (including “Moon of Alabama” and the “Benares-Lied”) that would later be expanded into a full-length opera, is the most (only?) familiar and the most important of the pieces in question, for one thing marking Weill’s initial collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. Curran has staged it as an art installation in a gym with four treadmills. Donath and Rivera invoke the green moon of Alabama and veteran John Cheek sang a stalwart Jimmy the logger. The costumes suggested a Gatsby-themed Halloween party, from knickers and spats to Donath’s whorishly spangled dress, impossible hat and fox fur “chubby.”

To keep the evening rolling along and spare us the agony of program notes, the singers provide ad lib “narrations” to introduce the pieces, explain the director’s “symbolism” and cover scene changes. This idea is not a great success, but it’s fun to watch a serene veteran like Donath working a crowd.

Perhaps the best part was the level of vocalism: No matter how blunt the harmonies or awkward the melodies or bewildering the action, the singing was of a rich, satisfying level, clarion, stylish, sensuous. Nothing went on very long (there wasn’t time), but no one sang under strain: All these composers knew voice and how to spin it to dramatic effect. Neal Goren led the various orchestral configurations brightly, guiding the little jests and pretty witticisms of the writing to our ears.

This eccentric mix of parodies, pointed or highbrow, brilliantly scored but melodically odd, make an elegant if scattershot entertainment. One wonders about the original audience: How musically sophisticated were they. Probably more than we are: They all learned instruments rather than listen to recordings. And how young were they? The avant-garde still had an establishment to fight against in those days.

The narration before Toch’s Prinzessin made much of the rise of Nazi anti-semitism and the Jewish Toch’s flight to America, but in fact three of the composers were Jews who fled here; only Hindemith, a Swiss and a gentile, did not. But 1927 was not a year of dark shadows: Germany was a prosperous republic at that time, open to new things, more or less untroubled. It took the Depression of the 1930s to bring the Nazis to power.

Photos: Richard Termine

7 comments

  • Krunoslav says:

    Thanks for the review. Looking forward to seeing this show.

    Maybe some program notes would have been in order. Hindemith was certainly German, not Swiss. His wife Gertrud was half- Jewish and thus they left for Switzerland in 1938, continuing to the USA in 1940 and taking citizenship after WW II. He spent the last decade of his life ( 1953-63) in Zürich.

    Maybe you were thinking of Honegger, who was indeed Swiss (though born in France)?

  • Buster says:

    Thank you! I was very curious how Helen Donath did in this. Glad you liked her. Love that picture!

  • m. croche says:

    Hindemith himself was not famous for his wit

    Um, are you at all familiar with “Neues vom Tage” -- both the opera and its repercussions in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich?

    In general, Hindemith’s music is filled with many types of humor: parody, grotesquerie, wit, and the gentler form of comedy that Hazlitt called “humour”.

  • pmazzagatti says:

    One of my favorite moments of wit from Hindemith. Ouvertüre zum Fliegenden Holländer, wie sie eine schlechte Kurkapelle morgens um 7 am Brunnen vom Blatt spielt

    • m. croche says:

      Anybody who spends much time around violists is certain to know the performing direction: “Fugato, mit bizarrer Plumpheit vorzutragen”

  • parpignol says:

    this is brilliant; and it actually had a wonderful live performance downtown in a church on 6th avenue during this past summer. . .

  • cosmodimontevergine says:

    How about Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber. It’s not exactly slapstick but there is plenty of sly humor.