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In Review > North America

Le Pauvre Matelot & Les Mamelles de Tirésias  

VIENNA, VA
Wolf Trap Opera
8/10/14

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Garrett and Watson in Wolf Trap’s Pauvre Matelot
© Teddy Wolff for Wolf Trap Opera 2014

Wolf Trap Opera closed its 2014 season with a winning burst of spookiness and surrealism. Milhaud’s compact little chiller Le Pauvre Matelot partnered Poulenc’s better-known absurdist masterwork Les Mamelles de Tirésias on a double bill that shared a chic, minimalist set designed by William Boles and such exceptionally subtle illumination by Robert H. Grimes that the lighting became an extra character.

The 1927 Milhaud opera, setting Cocteau’s text about a fiercely faithful sailor’s wife who mistakenly kills her husband when he returns after fifteen years, received a taut performance on August 10 in the Barns at Wolf Trap. Tracy Cox, as the Wife, spent a good deal of time inside the frame of a narrow box to underline the character’s self-confinement. The soprano used her large, sturdy voice to keen expressive effect, achieving considerable intensity in the dark closing scene. Ryan Speedo Green produced a rich sound and phrased his lines with telling nuance as the sailor’s father. Norman Garrett likewise made a strong impression with his deep, burnished baritone and sympathetic portrayal of the sailor’s friend and neighbor. Tenor Robert Watson gave the brief role of the Sailor a vivid workout, fueled by solid, ringing tones. Director Matthew Ozawa ensured persistent tension as the short work unfolded. Milhaud’s prismatic orchestration, which paints remarkable moods of irony and gloom with the simplest of means, was deftly articulated in the pit under the sensitive guidance of conductor Timothy Myers.

The main prop in the Milhaud production, a large blow-up of a moody portrait of a woman’s face, carried over into the Poulenc opera, suitably altered à la Duchamp. Costume designer Amanda Seymour, who kept things understated in the Milhaud work, let loose a vibrant assortment of mid-’40s couture, with plenty of gender-bending. Ozawa came up with brisk, amusing stage business to complement such visual playfulness as a flock of pink flamingo lawn ornaments, a giant rubber ducky and numerous cutouts of baby photos that underlined the opera’s be-fruitful-and-multiply mantra.

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Les Mamelles de Tirésias at Wolf Trap, with Greenhalgh and Kang
© Teddy Wolff for Wolf Trap Opera 2014
 

As was the case in Le Pauvre Matelot, the cast’s French was not uniformly persuasive, but everyone shaped the music with communicative flair and jumped wholeheartedly into the antics of the Apollinaire-based libretto. Mireille Asselin brought a light, bright soprano and formidable perkiness to the role of the defiant Thérèse. As the unusually fertile husband, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh acted up a storm. More important, he summoned quite a wealth of refined tone colors that served Poulenc’s most sensual melodic lines in particularly stylish fashion. Joo Won Kang, as the Directeur and hobbyhorse-riding Gendarme, hit the spot with his ample baritone and vibrantly etched phrasing. Members of the Wolf Trap Opera Studio filled out the remainder of the roles with vocal and theatrical aplomb, uniting to form a hearty sonic thrust in choral passages. Myers drew buoyant, mostly disciplined playing from the orchestra as he shaped Poulenc’s droll score (presented in a reduction by Bart Visman) with a deft touch. spacer 

TIM SMITH

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