Cher Public

Et in Arcadia, libido

A performance space called the Sheen Center has opened its doors way down the far end of Bleecker Street, a stoner’s throw from where CBGB’s used to thrive beside the itsy-bitsy Amato Opera House. (You never forget your first Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio.)  Sheen Center, sizable and modern and slim on personality, contains two theaters. The smaller one is the Sheen Center Blackbox (18 Bleecker), and it is just the right size (except it lacks a pit) for chamber-scale opera performance.

One is happy to welcome Heartbeat Opera to this storied neighborhood. The company is presenting two pieces, György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments and Offenbach’s Daphnis et Chloé. Last night, they were given as a double bill, but in fact they are separate shows. Sundays performances of both are sold out (they tell me), but tickets remain for Saturday’s performance of the Offenbach.

Heartbeat is one of the dozens of tiny new opera companies sprouting in New York these days like truffles in October. Artistic directors, Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard made noises at last night’s gala about getting back to opera’s roots in the dramatic power and appeal of the human voice, and that sits well with me. Their choice of program was puzzling, but satisfying from the vocal point of view. Too, with the lack of an orchestra pit, a great many operas, even chamber operas, were ruled out immediately.

The first half of the program, Kurtág’s monodrama, dates from 1985-87 and employs the rather academic atonalism beloved, at least among Central European composers, at that date. Phrases from Kafka’s notebooks and his letters to his lover are sung in the original German (translations projected, along with films of the protagonist in wintry woods), while the mezzo, Annie Rosen, acted them out, in duet, in relationship, in hostility, in imagination with the other musician of the cast, a violinist, Jacob Ashworth. Travelers in a hopeless hotel room? Musicians on a wobbling Prague tram? Pilgrims oppressed by an obnoxious TV set or brutalized by invisible observers?

Rosen, who sings Cherubino and Cenerentola, resisted the urge to scream or bellow so alluring to singers of this sort of music: Her phrasing was mellow, her belief in the fragmentary and symbolic phrases assured. She can fade in and out of character at will, impassioned or spiritually crushed by quick turns. She and the various violins played by Ashworth had an intense and even physical, relationship. Both performers acted to the hilt, but to the hilt of what? While consciousness faded in and out (to say simply: I dozed off, would be rude), Rosen was never less than intensely present, and her voice is very attractive. I can see why she enjoyed this chance to demonstrate what she can do. The direction was by company Ethan Heard.

Daphnis et Chloé, on the other hand, like so many of Offenbach’s one-act bouffes, is a fluffy pastime sending up classical allusions with a soupçon of Second Empire ooh-la-la. The Great God Pan lusts for the naïve shepherdess Chloé; she, however, is devoted to her flock—and to the shepherd Daphnis. But both children are so innocent (too, as is traditional, the lover is played en travesti) that they haven’t a clue what to about their mutual feelings. Pan, who has disguised himself as an ithyphallic shrine-statue to himself (with blow-able horns!), has ideas.

When Daphnis is waylaid (ahem) by a group of horny Bacchantes (who promise to explain everything), Pan filches their mind-altering potion, hoping it will stimulate his aging passions. It turns out to be a draught of the River Lethe (the Bacchantes were hoping to make Daphnis forget Chloé), and just as the charming girl is yearning to succumb to him (or to someone), Pan takes a swig and forgets the plot.

Happily for Chloé, Daphnis has learned a thing or two (offstage), and there’s nothing like passing along a bit of folk wisdom, eh? The tunes, performed by a floral five-man instrumental ensemble under Louis Lohraseb, sound just like every other Offenbach melody you ever heard, but that’s a happy thing. You can’t can-can to Kurtág’s Kafka. (Given my druthers, a bunch of Offenbach tunes would have been used for an operetta based on The Trial, but that would probably require a major funding grant.) The serviceable translation was by Michaël Attias.

Louise Proske’s direction and Chloe Treat’s choreography made the frolic a frolic, never pretending to be more than the fun it was. The costumes were by Beth Goldenberg and the hair and makeup by Jon Carter: Chloé wears a shepherdess skirt and Daphnis dude duds, but the Great God Pan, be-horned and be-hoofed and all half-naked glitter, was a proper sight. The traditional Bacchantes were totally punked out, the hair, the goth eye makeup, the ripped stockings, the moody jewelry—and hey, why not? Et in Arcadia, libido, as someone said.

Nicole Haslett has a mellifluous version of the thin Parisian soprano that was once so admired over there. It’s a pretty voice, agile and true, though a tad shrill when cavorting in the stratosphere. I liked Karen Mushegain’s soothingly amorous mezzo as Daphnis, and her way of playing with a sheep’s floppy ears when shy. Gary Ramsey, as the barechested god of sleaze, harmonized amiably with both the pastors and sang his character with the self-satiated flamboyance. Among the salacious Bacchantes, clearly influenced by the sort of thing girls get up to on TV talent shows, Alexandra Loutsion, who seems to be a mezzo now, was in especially powerful and lip-smacking form. I’d like to see her as Dalila, or perhaps Frank N. Furter.

Photo by Christopher Ash.

  • I have a theory that critics, particularly the ones that write snap-judgement, daily-newspaper style criticism, are more intelligent and interesting when describing things they like than when discussing pieces which bore them or to which they are hostile. Kurtag’s Kafka-Fragmente is a monodrama? It’s not labeled such by the composer. If anything, it stands in much closer relationship to the lied cycle, which it deconstructs by virtue of its prose texts and fragmentary forms (in Kurtag’s works, fragment and synthesis are often locked in mortal combat). And wasn’t Sellars the first to stage Kurtag’s work, in 2005? This kind of makes a difference in reviewing the piece: a listener will have different expectations of a song cycle staged (and the necessary act of translation that implies) than they will of a through-composed melodrama.

    If a critic is confused by the musical and poetic logic of the piece, perhaps he could start by referring to the four sections which Kurtag marks out, how the work is structured as cycles within a cycle, and so on. The piece has long been out on CD and youtube. A reviewer could actually study up beforehand. Preferable, at any rate, to snoozing. To describe the music as “academic atonalism” is about as superficial as it get -- and misleading: I’d judge that Kurtag’s music is more tonally allusive than, say, Webern’s.

  • Er, “monodrama”, not “melodrama”. Autocorrect failure.

  • Patrick Mack

    “…is a fluffy pastime sending up classical allusions with a soupçon of Second Empire ooh-la-la.” John, I doff my hat and bow low.