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In Review > North America

Les Mamelles de Tirésias & Der Kaiser von Atlantis 

NEW YORK CITY
Juilliard Opera
11/18/15

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Levine as the Husband in Juilliard’s Mamelles
© Nan Melville (Mamelles)

JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING went right in Juilliard Opera’s double bill of Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Der Kaiser von Atlantis, which received the first of three performances on November 18. Poulenc’s surreal comedy and Viktor Ullmann’s mordant satire, both written in response to World War II, proved an ideal pairing. The two works are vividly contrasted in tone, yet alike in their embrace of the absurd and in the eclecticism of their musical language. Ted Huffman’s deft productions were finely attuned to the particular character of each piece. He set Mamelles in a Paris café; Samal Blak’s monochrome design scheme conjured up the films of the early 1940s—an apt setting for Poulenc’s nostalgia-drenched score, which conveys its own potent glamour. The set’s only solid element was a movable bar counter that proved remarkably versatile, never more so than at the beginning of Act II, when it served as an incubator for the Husband’s army of newborns. Huffman’s staging, choreographed by Zack Winokur, was continually inventive but never over-busy: it seemed to draw its impetus from the freeform fantasy of the composer’s musical method. It gave full rein to the work’s fizzy humor but never strained for laughs or betrayed the essential elegance of Poulenc’s music.

Der Kaiserappropriately, received more somber treatment. Marcus Doshi’s set was the saddest circus tent imaginable; it easily could have stood on the grounds of Theresienstadt, where Ullmann and Peter Kien wrote the piece. The singers’ clown makeup, designed by Dave Bova, suggested both the big top and the morgue. The production made the audience aware of the grim context of the opera’s composition (both Ullmann and Kien were soon murdered in Auschwitz), but it touched on the horror lightly, bringing out the opera’s elements of cabaret-like parody, as well as its veins of sweet lyricism. 

The work of both casts was notable for a combination of youthful energy and professional-level accomplishment. Liv Redpath was a stunning Thérèse/Tirésias in Mamelles, a trace of tartness giving her limpid high soprano a Gallic tang. Samuel Levine is a tenor—his bio lists Don Ottavio and Fenton among his roles—but he calibrated his voice deftly to the baryton-Martin demands of the Husband. Tenor Matthew Swensen (Lacouf/the Son) sounded uncannily French, every syllable of the text delightful to hear. Xiaomeng Zhang and Fan Jia attacked the roles of Presto and the Gendarme with zest. The work’s prologue found Theo Hoffman (the Director) in uncharacteristically thick voice (perhaps it lay too low for his lyric baritone), but his exuberant physical presence subsequently embodied the high spirits of Mamelles.

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Mirosław and Schneider in Kaiser von Atlantis at Juilliard
© Nan Melville
 

Both tenor Gerard Schneider (Harlekin) and bass Daniel Mirosław (Death) brought real bel canto virtues to the first scene of Der Kaiser. Their singing suggested that even in the harshest of realms, beauty can thrive. The makeup and garb of the title character, Kaiser Overall, marked him as an avatar of Hitler himself, but baritone Dimitri Katotakis’s sensitive reading of the death scene offered a glimpse into the character’s humanity. Cody Quattlebaum, as the emcee-like Loudspeaker, was impressively authoritative in his delivery of the German text. In the Drummer’s first-scene aria, Amanda Lynn Bottoms emphasized the registral breaks in her mezzo-soprano; the effect was slightly grotesque and utterly fitting. In the third scene, she joined soprano Rebecca Farley (Girl with Bobbed Hair) and tenor Alexander McKissick (Soldier) in an exquisitely blended trio that served as a tribute to the thoroughness of the evening’s musical preparation.

One could sense the talent and commitment of the instrumentalists in Juilliard’s orchestra without always being sure that conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson was drawing out their best work; the dance rhythms that pervade both works seemed especially subdued in Wilson’s reading. But this was a minor blight in an enthralling evening—one that needed no special allowances for its conservatory provenance. This double bill was an opera performance at the highest level.  —Fred Cohn 

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