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CD Button Pastin, Ruckman, Bonet, Bonetti; Rutter, Levine, Mason, Treviño; Nashville Opera Orchestra, Williamson. Text. American Modern Recordings AMR 1048 (2)

Recordings Three Way Cover 518

NASHVILLE OPERA gave the premiere of this trio of one-acts by American composer Robert Paterson almost a century after the 1918 premiere of Puccini’s Trittico. But Paterson and his librettist, David Cote, eschew the doom and gloom of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica in favor of the situational comedy of Gianni Schicchi—with more sex. Three Way is like Woody Allen’s 1971 Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex—a series of vignettes that humorously penetrate the messy world of human sexuality. They’re by no means pornographic; aside from a few f-bombs, Cote keeps things PG–13. And Paterson writes innocuous music to match, especially in the opening act, The Companion. It’s the weakest of the three, relying on an unimaginative “what-if” scenario reminiscent of recent sci-fi entertainment, such as Netflix’s Black Mirror. Most of the piece consists of bland, dragging recitative between Maya, a single businesswoman in the near future, and the all-too-perfect Joe, her sexbot-cum-manservant. But there’s nothing robotic about Samuel Levine’s performance as the android lover; in lieu of the mechanical stuttering of Offenbach’s Olympia (whose aria is quoted as Maya’s ringtone), Levine’s dark-hued tenor and lyrical delivery help humanize the bionic character. He lays the passion on thick in his final aria, in which Joe bids Maya adieu to pursue a fellow sexbot; it’s a sweeping, Andrew Lloyd Webber-style ballad sugared with sentimental harmonies and sappy lyrics—enough to make you wonder if Paterson and Cote intend it to be ironic.

Act II, Safe Word, is a bigger turn-on. Paterson here is more musically adventurous, adopting a murky, chromatic style to conjure the sex dungeon of whip-wielding dominatrix Mistress Salome. But the Gothic mood is thrown off when her macho, masochistic client requests a ridiculous roleplay, crossdressing as a little girl in goldilocks curls. Matthew Treviño puts on a baby-voice falsetto as “Polly Puddlepanties,” hilariously flipping down into his rotund bass with asides such as “you naughty little bitch.” An uncanny glockenspiel ostinato supported by low strings signals a sinister shift as the client attempts to faze the dominatrix into becoming the sub in a “switch session.” Their tense duet leads up to a climactic aria for mezzo Eliza Bonet in which Mistress Salome reestablishes the power dynamic. Bonet’s voice, taut as black leather, ascends to triumphant top notes over snaking leitmotifs from Strauss’s Salome. Caught up in this thrilling display of unrestrained feminine force, her character accidentally suffocates the client through erotic asphyxiation (though there’s a twist I won’t give away).

The final leg of this unholy trinity, Masquerade, takes place at a masked orgy à la Eyes Wide Shut. Three couples—all members of an online swingers’ community—are forced to confront their sexual prejudices and insecurities as they mix and match with unfamiliar partners. Cote satirizes the generational divide with an awkward exchange between Larry, a boisterous, all-American man’s man, and the identically dressed couple Kyle and Tyler, a pair of “pansexual postgender partners.” Countertenor Jordan Rutter and mezzo Melisa Bonetti blend together beautifully to form a single, androgynous voice as they sing, “Male or female, it’s all in flux.” Aside from an overabundance of chime-tree swipes, Paterson’s music here is buoyant and uplifting, drawing on quirky minimalist ostinatos. But the recit is still too cumbersome; spoken dialogue might have sped up the action. In this act especially, you get the sense that Three  Way would work better as a concept musical. The string of dance-inspired numbers in which the characters reflect on their (offstage) encounters feels straight out of Sondheim.  

Baritone Wes Mason, as Larry, sobs through a tango lament over his erectile dysfunction, accompanied by flaccid bassoon. As his wife, Connie, Danielle Pastin has a slinking jazz number about making friends (with and without benefits). While she sounded a tad strained as Maya in Act I, the mezzo seems more comfortable here, indulging in bluesy growls and pitch bends. Pure-voiced countertenor Rutter nicely sums up the evening with Kyle’s hope-filled waltz envisioning a future free from sexual repression. In the post-Weinstein era, it’s a gentle reminder that sex should be an act of exploration, not exploitation. —Joe Cadagin 

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