Wednesday afternoon, Pocket Orchestra New York’s new PONYmobile presented a guerrilla performance of sorts in a most unlikely space, the XES Lounge in Manhattan, where designer Joel Yapching‘s BOOK homme debuted its Spring/Summer 2012 collection to the strains of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. 

The excerpts were arranged and realized by Brent Chancellor, who conducted the singers from a laptop in the DJ booth. His electronic elements were thoughtfully designed, ranging from Wendy Carlos–like quasi-baroque accompaniments to free, ambient interludes, but I wished that he had been yet more adventurous. The most Monteverdian synth consort moments were the least successful, while the moments of high-pitched glitch or thudding sub-bass, exploiting his digital medium to the full, managed to climb out the far end of the Uncanny Valley.

Mezzo Alison Cheeseman (pictured) and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna (he entered by clawing a hole in the small paper set) were afforded no electronic assistance at all, the lack of amplification leaving them a bit high and dry in the bar’s unsympathetic acoustic, and sonically divorcing them from the accompaniment. Cheeseman especially seemed a bit off-balance in the relatively low, heavy role of Penelope; Tamagna’s Ulisse seemed far surer, and his bell-like timbre carried easily across the room.

On any other stage, these handsome young singers would have made for a sympathetic and glamorous pair, but surrounded by professional models, who exude stage presence like it’s their job (because it is), they ended up seeming quite ordinary. Their costumes were part of a very laid-back, comfortable-looking collection, dominated by linen and cotton, off-white and black, but at least the other light, layered looks on the runway dared to include such glamorous, even fetishistic touches as a black mesh vest and kilt, and the singers’ looks suffered by comparison.

The drape of the one long hem on Ulisse’s off-white, asymmetrical short jacket evoked the classical setting in some intangible way, but without a belt, the back of his waistband slouched and failed to flatter. (A model wearing the same short in black, with two belts, seemed far more heroic.) Penelope’s black hoodie gestured towards mourning, but by pairing it with a t-shirt and shorts, she seemed likelier to slip in a pair of earbuds and go for a quick jog than to fall into a swoon.

Without amplification, without lighting, with only subtle makeup, the performance lacked visual pop, and became just a backdrop to the fashion, instead of helping to push it forward. After the end of the show, the pair’s last number (“Pur ti miro,” trundled in from L’Incoronazione di Poppea) seemed an anticlimax.

Well, so far this PONYmobile seems like a great idea—they pulled a masterpiece out of a trunk, did some solid singing, and brought opera to a little crowd of hip and artsy young people—and if their Fashion Week Ritorno failed to ignite, it wasn’t for lack of creative spark; the chemistry needed just a little more of this, a little more of that. If I was dissatisfied with yesterday’s show, I’m still very eager to see where they’ll pop up next.

Compare to Opera Moderne, another pocket-sized New York opera company that put on their first performance a few weeks ago, and whose performance of Britten’s Phaedra I’d been eagerly anticipating.  It’s a piece I’d have liked to get to know better, having gotten to know and love Racine’s tragedy in the Robert Lowell version Britten adapts here, and tending to feel as if my actual fondness for Britten’s music never quite matches up to my admiration for it, but finding that relistenings and live performances and whatnot have tended to shore things up as far as all that goes.

With regards to George Crumb‘s music, also on the menu, even as I disapprove of the plunge his critical stock has taken in recent decades, I do tend to feel a bit “yeah, okay, I get it,” and his Ancient Voices of Children was never my favorite piece; the other work on the program was Libby Larsen’s settings from the letters of Calamity Jane to her daughter, songs about which I knew absolutely nothing.

Hence I’m sure you can imagine my dismay on arriving at the Galapagos Art Space to find that our Phaedra for the evening had come down with strep, and so the inaugural performance of the new Opera Moderne was going to have to offer instead excerpts from Picker’s Emmeline. I braced my knees for the long step down from Robert Lowell/Benjamin Britten to J.D. McClatchy/Tobias Picker.

What a jerk I am, sometimes! As it turns out, what I don’t know about opera could fill a pleasantly damp DUMBO cabaret. The excerpts from Emmeline were lovely, and left me eager to hear the rest of the piece—McClatchy’s text served its purpose, and Picker’s knack for the melodic setpiece managed somehow to steer its course between the Scylla and Charybdis of Puccini Knockoff and Broadway Reject without scraping either.

Pacien Mazzagatti sightread (really?? that’s what we were told!) elegantly and sensitively through Picker’s often spare accompaniments. And the soprano, Kristin Sampson, was a powerhouse. Her mic technique was good, a rare gift among singers—for her ecstatic, but firm, never shrill, high notes, she turned away from it a little, and even without the amplification, even in that strange room (have you see it? It is STRANGE), she sounded terrific, and her diction was crystalline on top of it all. According to her bio, she sang this piece in its entirety with DiCapo recently; I’d love to have heard her bring this level of passion and control to the role. The letdown, in other words, wasn’t.

I was less taken with Laura Strickling‘s rendition of Larsen’s Songs from Letters. Part of the blame lies with Larsen, whose songs lacked the immediate appeal of Emmeline‘s rich sentimentalism, although a least her choice of texts (and transparent setting thereof) succeeded in illuminating the extraordinary personality of their author, some of whose motherly advice would have seemed ahead of its time ten years ago, let alone a hundred ten.

But the performance also failed to excite, and I found myself picking nits. Strickling’s pitch was variable; in brief a cappella moments, I was terrified that she would find herself in the wrong key when the accompanist came back in (but it was fine! she had found her way right back home, each time), and throughout the songs, I found myself wondering whether cowgirl correspondence should really be sung with the R’s flipped (I’m thinking not).

In the evening’s main course, my irritation at mezzo Suzanne Chadwick‘s difficulties with the Spanish language (PROTIP: in Castilian Spanish, both Zs and Cs should be pronounced with a “th” sound) were more than made up for by her musical and theatrical commitment to the material. I mean, it’s Crumb, the words are hardly the point—Ned Rorem, who once sniped at the “mooning on each big-scope syllable of muerte or luna with a meaningless meaningfulness that must sound silly to native ears,” somehow managed at once to hit the nail on the head and to miss it entirely.

And the band crowding the tiny Galapagos stage was every bit her artistic match. I’d actually been lucky enough to hear pianist Jessica Osborne, who also accompanied the Larsen, play similar material at one of her recitals as a Yale student, premiering a piece that required total control not only over the keyboard but of the piano’s amplified guts as well.

That she shone as only one of constellation of star-caliber players was a testament to the excellence of her colleagues (more Yalies! I noticed that the percussion section was also a trio fresh from that school’s excellent percussion department—Michael Compitello, Ian Rosenmaum, Adam Rosenblatt), and to Crumb’s richly eventful writing. Conductor Carmine Aufiero managed to make sense out of a score that looks like it was written by a mad person to maintain a fine balance among his musicians (including, in the boy soprano’s part, a clear-voiced Elizabeth Munn), and to ensure that the piece was more than the sum of Crumb’s exotic effects.

All in all, it was a promising maiden voyage for Opera Moderne. With reserves of talent this deep, their season’s musical success is all but guaranteed. And we’re promised a makeup performance of Phaedra.