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In Review > North America

La Mère Coupable

On Site Opera

In Review On site Opera Mere Coupable lg 917
Black and Owens in On Site Opera’s Mère Coupable
© Fay Fox

ON SITE OPERA, increasingly known for its innovative and immersive site-specific stagings, brought Darius Milhaud’s Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother) to the Garage in Manhattan for four performances. La Mère Coupable (seen June 22) is the neglected stepchild of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, which includes the more famous Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. On Site’s presentation of The Guilty Mother marked the end of the company’s multiseason “Figaro” project, which included Marcos Portugal’s Marriage of Figaro (2016)and Giovanni Paisiello’s Barber of Seville (2015). The Garage, currently owned by designer Kenneth Cole, is a vast ground-floor warehouse near the western edge of midtown Manhattan, complete with blank concrete walls and structural floor-to-ceiling columns. The bare-bones setting emphasized the decaying fortunes of the Almaviva household, as well as the family’s vulnerability to Bégearss, a scheming outsider.

Eric Einhorn’s staging for On Site marked the U.S. premiere of Milhaud’s opera, which had its world premiere in Geneva in 1966. La Mère Coupable is somewhat forbidding. Milhaud’s suave, Stravinsky-influenced neoclassical score is spiky and fascinating in its polytonality, but both pacing and texture are frequently unrelenting. As a result, there is not much character differentiation in the music, and the unfolding of the convoluted plot seems one step removed. We reacquaint ourselves with the Count and Countess Almaviva, middle-aged and unhappily married, each with an out-of-wedlock child. Both children live as part of the family: the Countess’s son Léon—the fruit of an affair with the now-dead Cherubino—is ostensibly the Count’s as well (although the Count has his suspicions), and the Count’s daughter Florestine is assumed by all to be merely his ward. Naturally, the boy and the girl fall in love, but Bégearss has designs on Florestine and, more important, on the Count’s fortune. It’s not always easy to tell who is aware of which child’s actual parentage at any given moment, but Bégearss is clearly playing all of them.

 The intrepid cast members were undeterred by the musical and dramatic challenges of this curious piece, sung in French with English supertitles. Soprano Jennifer Black, as the Countess, emerged as the opera’s emotional anchor, wringing great feeling out of her occasional flights of lyricism (yes, there were some) and letting her voice press against the dissonances in the orchestra to emphasize her pain. Upon discovering that the Count has also had an out-of-wedlock child, Black surprised us with her hope and joyfulness: if they’ve both sinned, then maybe they can dispel the anger and rebuild their marriage. As the Count, Adam Cannedy was strong and rugged, intimidating in his rage but wonderfully repentant in their reconciliation. (“Without you, I’m miserable,” he sang, on his knees.) As Bégearss, bass-baritone Matthew Burns was particularly powerful in his upper range and remarkably gripping in his raging moments before his final exit. Marcus DeLoach’s buoyant Figaro gave us a fun, rousing account of the jig-like number at the end of Act I, declaring, “I’m getting the spring back in my feet.” At that point, it was exactly what the audience needed. Mezzo Marie Lenormand immediately conjured a vibrant and characterful Suzanne. Amy Owens, possessed of a radiant soprano, was a passionate Florestine, convincing in both her grief and her joy. 

It was announced before the performance that Andrew Owens, playing Léon, was suffering from allergies; despite his compromised vocal status, he gave a dramatically committed performance that served the piece well. Christian Zaremba, a tall, amiable bass, was a welcome presence in the final scene as Fal, the notary. The thirteen-piece orchestra was the estimable International Contemporary Ensemble, which gave a characteristically polished performance under the sharp leadership of OSO music director Geoffrey McDonald. This is not the most immediately likable piece, but On Site Opera exuberantly showed it to its best advantage.  —Joshua Rosenblum

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