Cher Public

Operas on the verge of a nervous breakdown

It’s a pity that Francis Poulenc took so long to getting around to compose his operas: all three are, in their own ways, masterpieces, and one can only wonder what else he might have contributed to the lyric stage had he begun much earlier in his career.  This week we complete the trilogy with the 1947 opéra bouffe Les mamelles de Tirésias and the 1959 dramatic monologue La voix humaine. 

Les mamelles de Tirésias is notable for its Dadaist influences in the libretto drawn from the writings of Guillaume Apollinaire.  Despite the overall giddiness of the work, it is full of nostalgia and a sense of loss in the era immediately post-World War II.

Jean Cocteau’s 1928 monodrama La voix humaine provides the source for the opera.  The playwright also directed and designed the sets and costumes for the premiere at Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique, starring Denise Duval and conducted by Georges Prêtre.

The sole character, simply called “Elle,” provides yet another great vehicle for the magnificently versatile and dramatically intense Anna Caterina Antonacci.

Last week’s post got bumped as La Cieca recovered from an attack of the vapors.  For the Fourth of July, I sought a work which would truly celebrate the best intentions of America’s founding fathers.  I decided on one penned by two gay men who hailed from the country from which America gained its independence: Paul Bunyan by Benjamin Brittten and W.H. Auden.

The operetta with ballad interludes was written when its authors were living under the same roof in Brooklyn Heights along with George Davis, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Oliver Smith, Klaus Mann, Gypsy Rose Lee, and a revolving cast of vagabond artists and their hangers-on and one-night-stands.  Dubbed “February House” due to the shared birthday month of many of its residents, the brownstone on Middagh Street provided nurturing communal life for the artists who bedded-down there.

Its fascinating history has been brilliantly chronicled by Sherill Tippins in her must-read tell-all, February House, published in 2006 and available at Amazon.

Paul Bunyan premiered at Columbia University in May 1941 to negative reviews and was promptly dismissed and forgotten by Britten.  At the end of his life in 1976, he made some tweaks to his score, and performances started popping up.

America got its second chance with a 1998 New York City Opera production masterfully directed by Mark Lamos with charming, inventive sets and costumes by Paul Steinberg and Constance Hoffman, which provides this week’s upload.

Stewart Robertson leads a large ensemble cast headed by Elisabeth Comeaux, Jeffrey Lentz, John McVeigh, the ballad singer and guitarist David Lutken, and the booming voice of actor and narrator John McDonough in the title role (he is never seen).

I find the score one delight after another, from the opening chorus of ancient trees to Paul Bunyan’s moving farewell about the future of America.  Highlights include Tiny’s unbearably gorgeous memory of her deceased mother in her aria “Whether the sunshine upon children playing,” and the bluesy Quartet of the Defeated, “Gold in the North came the blizzard to say.”

The creative team provided a series of unforgettable tableaux beginning with the forest comprised of the entire chorus dressed as conservatively-dressed grey-haired elderly people, each in a rocking chair, holding small pine trees in their laps, interrupted by geese on roller skates.  It was a stunning showcase for the best that NYCO could provide in every aspect.

  • I’m glad to see I’m not alone in liking Paul Bunyan. It comes in for a lot of stick.