In Review > North America

Baden-Baden 1927

Gotham Chamber Opera     

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Jennifer Rivera, Michael Mayes, Helen Donath and Matthew Tuell in Gotham Chamber Opera's production of Ernst Toch's Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse, part of an evening of four, short chamber-operas
Photo by Richard Termine
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Michael Mayes, Maeve Höglund, Matthew Tuell and John Cheek in Hin und Zurück
Photo by Richard Termine
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Helen Donath in Mahagonny Songspiel
Photo by Richard Termine

In 1927, Paul Hindemith, serving on the administration of the Baden-Baden Festival, commissioned an evening of four short chamber operas: Darius Milhaud's L'Enlèvement d'Europe (Abduction of Europe), Ernst Toch's Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (The Princess and the Pea, Hindemith's own Hin und Zurück and the Mahagonny Songspiel — the first collaboration of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and the source of their later Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Gotham Chamber Opera regathered the works in an ambitious evening titled Baden-Baden 1927, seen on October 23 at the first of four performances at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. 

The four pieces present a study in sharp musical contrasts: the Milhaud sombre but gauzy; the Hindemith brash and parodistic; the Toch fleet and congenial; the Weill mixing high and low influences in the composer's familiar, astringent voice. But in the Gotham performances, led by the company's artistic director Neal Goren, these individual qualities emerged dimly. L'Enlèvement d'Europe was all but indecipherable as a musical statement, its dense, clustered harmonies smeared in the execution, with the singers' unconvincing French hindering our view of Milhaud's post-Impressionistic landscape. As good as the individual singers were in the Mahagonny male quartet, their imprecision of ensemble made it hard to follow Weill's musical argument. Coordination between stage and pit was an off-and-on matter, and in the Alabama-Song, the band covered the voice of the great Helen Donath — a failure of tact as well as musicality.

Paul Curran's staging of the four operas drew focus away from the music itself toward its own hectic invention. The performers scurried around huge moving set pieces: a two-sided painting, by the German painter Georg Baselitz, swung back and forth on stage, dodging proscenium-height canvas towers. (Court Watson was credited as "co-set" designer.)  The Toch piece was staged, for some reason, as a Kardashian sendup, with the performers dwarfed by their own images, captured by supers wielding video cameras. (The directorial trope of the onstage videographer, I must add, is getting very old very quickly.)  The climactic aria, depicting the princess's restless night atop her peak-sullied bed, charts a progression from untroubled languor to restless agitation, but here the video component imposed a jittery energy on the whole passage, drowning out the whiskey-sour charm of Toch's music. All evening long, the frenetic stage business clearly presented a challenge to the performers: I couldn't help but wonder whether some of the time involved in staging the operas would have been better spent in musical rehearsal. 

The most misguided element of the evening was the use of spoken introductions, offered before each opera by one of its principals. These were overlong, over-cute and ill prepared; worse, they explicated meanings that we really should have been allowed to divine for ourselves. Presumably these were inserted to facilitate set changes, but we really would have been better off sitting for a few minutes in silence. 

Die Prinzessin provided one of the chief musical pleasures of the evening in the work of Donath as the Queen. It is not a large role, but the veteran soprano, now in her early seventies, etched each line to make it count. Later, in Mahagonny's Benares-Song, she revealed a pungent, Lenya-esque chest voice. Bass John Cheek, another veteran performer, showed the value of experience in his assured work in three of the operas. The estimable mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera was thoroughly in her element in Mahagonny, earthy yet scrupulously musical. Daniel Montenegro's plangent tenor was an asset in all four operas. The prima donna assignments in the Milhaud, Toch and Hindemith works fell to Maeve Höglund; I would have taken more pleasure in her healthy lyric soprano if she had offered more shading and detail in her singing.

It is likely that, Mahagonny aside, I won't again encounter these particular operas — at least not in live performance. I can only be grateful to Gotham for affording me the opportunity. But I can't help but wish the company had given more attention to the works' most important element: the music. spacer 


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