Cher Public

Alcoholics astonished

Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote some fifty operatic works, not counting revisions and translations, and in every form extant in the two cities, Paris and Vienna, in which he made his career. There were opera seria, opéras-comiques, ballets-pantomimes and so on down to the great “reform” operas of his last twenty years that are all we ever hear nowadays.

Splendid as those are, and it’s wonderful that all six or seven are being performed more often, his lighter fare has been neglected. As more and more opera companies and musicians delve into forgotten scores and ancient performance practice, they are bound to come to light, and they can’t turn up too soon for me.

The Little Opera Theatre of New York has unearthed one of his little comedies, which is being performed at 59E59 through next Sunday. The opera, L’ivrogne corrigé (translated as The Reformed Drunkard, but sounding more evocative in its German version, Der bekehrte Trunkenbold) is a skit taken from one of La Fontaine’s fables, so slight that it seems unlikely to have been performed all by itself at Vienna’s Burgtheater back in 1760.

Considering the forces put together here to present it (in, apparently, its New York premiere), it’s a pity LOTNY did not find another such work to fill a double bill. There’s plenty of earlier Gluck to choose from. Or Hasse. Or Telemann. Or….

Mathurin, the drunkard of the title, has promised his pretty niece, Colette, in marriage to his drinking partner, Lucas. Colette, of course, has other ideas, focused on a certain Cléon. The hinge of the plot is the drunkard’s long-suffering wife, Mathurine. The ladies and Cléon catch the drinkers in a state of advanced inebriation, and convince them they have died, damned, condemned to torture by Pluto and the Furies. (It’s just a pagan damnation; Empress Maria Theresa probably attended the opening night.) They repent and are saved, and Mathurin takes the pledge against wine. (A sequel, Le Maison de Crack, is, unhappily, lost.)

Aside from pre-echoes of Orfeo (only two years off) that can be heard in the cries of the Furies, the appearance of an angelic spirit and Cléon’s aria (which would spiff up into nothing less than “Che faro senza Euridice”), the score is a delight in itself, number by number, and was beautifully played by a string quartet plus oboe.

The oboist, one Slava Znatchenii, was the hero of the performance by me, as the score called for two oboes, so they could theoretically spell each other in alternate numbers, but LOTNY just had one and he played them all exquisitely. Richard Owen conducted from the harpsichord.

The show, directed by Philip Shneidman, is double-cast. The night I attended, it was hard to imagine the singers could have been better. Anna Tonna, the put-upon Mathurine, perhaps had the edge—she had more to sing and of greater variety, denouncing marriage, men and inebriation, then pleading with “Pluton” for mercy on her husband, with a mellow mezzo-soprano of a purity to match the accompanying oboe. Candice Hoyes sang Colette with a charming full-bodied soprano.

The men made grainier, harder-edged sounds, but Michael Boley was charming as implacable Pluto and ardent Cléon, worthy of his “Che faro”; Brian Downen was entertaining as the butt of their joke, and Matthew Singer, cheerfully unrepentant, toasting Bacchus to the end, sang the friend and suitor Lucas. The company’s reputation for finding excellent voices, achieved in such past productions as Mitridate and Savitri, was most agreeably maintained.

But encountering this charming score and these excellent musicians was not an occasion of unmixed joy. The problem of presenting an unknown score that exists only in texts in other languages may be addressed in several ways; perhaps the least effective is a poor English translation.

One may wonder why, with so simple a story, any translation at all was required, or why titling, even abbreviated titling, would not do the trick—perhaps LOTNY feels audiences in 2013 won’t put up with anything less than total comprehension, word by word. In that case, and even allowing for a slim budget (much of it clearly well spent on a simple, elegant set and attractive costumes), the translation in use is unsatisfactory. It is atrocious.

Light operas in French are usually in rhymed couplets (even spoken plays in French were in rhyme), and songs without rhymes are absurd. The melodies assume a verse skeleton that isn’t there. There was seldom a sentence without at least one word heavily thumped on the wrong syllable—whoever wrote it didn’t bother to read the score.

The singers, professionals all, do not wince at what they are singing; I winced all night, regretting their excellent diction and the tiny theater. Would the rhymed clichés of old Met programs have been better? They couldn’t be worse.

Why was this done? What was the philosophy behind it? What a rumbustious pea to slip beneath the comfy mattress of a lovely score and such worthy musicians.

Photo: Tina Buckman.