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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Opera Review: The Pigs Take Over

The NY PHIL BIENNIAL unveils Gloria--A Pig Tale
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The thin line between love and sausage: Alexander Lewis (with knife) and
Lauren Snouffer in Gloria: A Pig Tale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
Opera is a serious art. Unless its perpetrator is H.K. Gruber, the imaginative Austrian composer whose Gloria--A Pig Tale is the second new stage work to have its New York premiere in the early days of the first NY PHIL BIENNIAL. This new production was a collaboration between New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, director Doug Fitch and AXIOM, a Juilliard-based ensemble devoting itself to the interpretation of contemporary music.

For this performance, the stage of the Met's Grace Rainey Rodgers Auditorium was transformed into a fantasy barnyard by Mr. Fitch and his design team from Giants Are Small. Mr. Fitch and his farmhands larded their space with a wide assortment of over-sized props, including outsized ox costumes (a possible Das Rheingold parody?) and of course the ubiquitous but somehow non-threating pig masks. The rustic setting was decorated with bales of hay, green plastic carpeting and an honest-to-goodness "hog-waller", with the actors getting down-and-dirty in the work's final pages.

Gloria (the libretto by Rudolf Herfurtner, its translation is by Amanda Holden) is fairly "toned down" for Mr. Gruber, who is best known for the eccentric song cycle Frankenstein! Using a large brass section, saxophones, multiple percussionists, piano and a single violin, he unleashes a dizzying series of musical parodies in an idiom that falls somewhere between Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, Leoš Janáček and Kurt Weill. Mr. Gilbert conducted this difficult score, putting sizzle into this tale of a girl who nearly becomes bacon.

There are tiny moments of parodist pleasure in this work (the Act II hammer-blow provides a chuckle to anyone who's ever sat through the Mahler Sixth) and other music gags that take longer to sink in. The endlessly looping, banal musical phrases in the opera's prologue played for five minutes before this listener realizes he'd been punked. Mr. Gruber even includes an homage to that old prankster Franz Joseph Haydn at the end of Act One: having the players go tacet and leave the stage carrying their instruments until only the concertmaster was left sawing on her fiddle.

The five singers moved freely through the "barnyard,"  playing pigs, oxen, frogs, and the opera's real villains: human farmers. The singers even incorporated the stoic Mr. Gilbert into the action, looming behind the piano or throwing the conductor's name into a line in the first act. The rear half of the acting surface was closed off except for two fantasy sequences, a cloud-busting weather ballet in which Gloria's handsome prince (the butcher!) appears in Act I and the climax of the work involving a pair of linked-but-singing sausages.

Although the small cast performed the work with tiny face mics, that did not interfere with them giving powerful, articulate performances. First among them was soprano Lauren Snouffer, whose achievements included several impressive high notes and some lovely lyric moments, despite having to soldier through Mr. Gruber's difficult, knotty vocal lines while wearing an enormous pig mask. As the vain heroine who nearly dies at the hands of the butcher while seeking her true love, she was a pearl among the swine.

Props go to the comic pair of tenor Alexander Lewis and bass Kevin Burdette. Decked out in a purple "Prince" t-shirt (replete with that Artist's "love symbol") Mr. Lewis (who was suffering from illness) sang the part of the butcher with villainous glee, even though he was forced to "mark" in the big Act I duet. Mr. Burdette was at full force, strapping on an enormous Pumbaa-sized hogs-head to go a-wooing as Rodrigo (real name: "Steve"), a lusty boar with a boorish interest in the heroine. Baritone Carlton Ford provided able support along with mezzo Brenda Patterson: they were the singing wurst in the second act.

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