In just two years, Brooklyn’s LoftOpera has rapidly established itself as a bracing, essential addition to New York City’s musical life. While some can’t imagine opera existing outside Lincoln Center and, perhaps, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, many others hunger for alternatives and hundreds of them converged Friday evening at The Muse, a cavernous circus school, to savor Loft’s latest endeavor, a provocative staging of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  

Though one is still most likely to encounter the great song-cycles performed in conventional concert settings, recent ventures like William Kentridge’s multi-media production of Schubert’s Die Winterreise in collaboration with baritone Matthias Goerne have explored these cycles’ inherent theatricality. Loft’s stage director John de los Santos fused his pair into an occasionally unwieldy but always involving theater-piece called The Rose and the Knife conjuring a wrenching portrait of a love affair doomed by conflicting needs and expectations. Rather than first do the six Berlioz songs followed by the four Mahler, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle and baritone Joel Herold alternated them in a polyglot mélange which was initially jarring but eventually evolved into something quite moving.

The director’s helpful program note explained some of the more opaque relationship twists of the work’s 50-minute running time. The mezzo (M) flirts playfully with an admirer in her opening “Villanelle” as a prelude to their love-making after which “Le spectre de la rose” becomes an intriguing post-coital musing on her estranged lover, the baritone (B). His initial anguish is followed by the buoyant “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” during which we discover he’s a painter who slyly cajoles a new female admirer into purchasing his latest work.

The mood grows progressively darker as M dressed in black returns from the funeral of her husband (the man with whom we see her at the beginning). M and B finally encounter each other at the end of that first lament “Sur les lagunes,” and her subsequent “Absence” is sung directly, pleadingly to him. B brutally rejects her and returns to his safely routinized life with a new wife, the buyer of his painting. Stung by his abandonment, M begins a frightening downward spiral landing her dazed and homeless on a park bench, unaware of the irony of her “L’île inconnue.” The piece ends with a heart-breaking flash of recognition between the two as B drops a dollar into the well-worn paper coffee-cup in which M has been collecting “donations.”

Both fearless performers, Ringle and Herold unflinchingly embraced the staging’s intense dramatic demands. Her sumptuously rich mezzo coped well with Berlioz’s challenges, although some songs suited her better than others. The ravishing “Le spectre de la rose” glowed, but an often lugubrious “Sur les lagunes” again demonstrated that it works better with a male voice. Occasionally underpowered in the demanding “Ich hab’ein glühend Messer” Herold wielded his pleasingly grainy baritone to stirring effect.

Dean Buck conducting an eager 26-piece orchestra coped bravely with the complex demands of both composers. Although lacking the ideal shimmer and blaze needed for Berlioz and Mahler, Buck’s deliberate readings supported the singers beautifully in a presumably difficult layout where the orchestra was crowded into a tiny area next to the small raised platform in the center of the vast space.

While the competing original languages—French for the Berlioz and German for the Mahler–no doubt reinforced the ill-fated couple’s failure to communicate, the predominantly young crowd in attendance may have found them an impediment. And few in the packed-in audience could probably see the English titles awkwardly projected on a side wall anyway. How much better it would have been if the viewers could have concentrated on the singers without having to constantly snatch a glance at an elusive title. More than once I wished these two fine artists had been performing in their own language, communicating directly to their eagerly intent audience.

While this modern pasticcio might not have fully achieved its ambitious aims, it proved consistently compelling, musically and dramatically gratifying. Just one more performance remains—at the bargain admission of $20 tonight (Saturday August 29.) The second installment of LoftOpera’s so-called “Summer Session” will present a quartet of Verdi duets on September 25 and 26, again at The Muse—miss it at your peril!

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