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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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Opera Review: The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

Gotham Chamber Opera revives El Gato con Botas.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Puss in Boots (left, inverted) is menaced by the Ogre (Kevin Burdette, right)
in El Gato con Botas. Photo by Richard Termine for Gotham Chamber Opera.
It is the sign of maturity for an opera company when it finally begins to produce revivals. This month, Gotham Chamber Opera revived El Gato con Botas (yes, that's "Puss In Boots"), the charming children's opera by Catalan compser Xavier Montsalvatge. Mounted at the picturesque Teatro del Museo del Barrio at the upper end of Fifth Avenue, this proved to be one of the best family-friendly performances of the current opera season, a delight for the eyes, ears and funny bone.

Children's opera remains a tricky sub-genre. Few composers have written works that will appeal both to the younger set and to their parents who are probably paying for tickets. On Tuesday night El Gato con Botas proved to be a worthy successor to the likes of 20th century works like Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges and Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. Xavier Montsalvatge, a composer mainly known for his place at the tail end of tonal music in his native Spain, succeeded as well as this production so aptly demonstrated.

This staging (first seen at the New Victory Theater in 2010) uses puppetry (by Blind Summit Puppet Theater) and a clever breaking of the fourth wall to portray its paddy-pawed protagonist. Puss starts as a mangy and abused house-cat before acquring cape, sword, feathered cap and of course, his signature footwear.

And the moment when Puss dodges the Miller's blow and leaps, with the puppet gripping the proscenium is when this remarkable opera shows its true mettle. Three puppeteers (Stefano Brancato, Jonothan Lyons and Aaron Schroeder) manipilated Puss on his adventures, with the cat's voice supplied by soprano Karin Mushegain. The clever and coordinated work of the puppeteers was essential to the success of this show, as they made the hero of this opera uncannily lifelike.

Combining live-action singing actors with puppeteers, the company presented Puss' encounter with a pompous, popinjay King (Stefanos Koroneos) and his court (played as bumbling dwarves by singers wearing face make-up and the puppets on their chests) a wily and ever-multiplying corps of rabbits, and finally a fearsome and enormous Ogre, played by the equally fearsome bass Kevin Burdette. This last was the show's most impressive visual, as the Ogre resembled the rock monster in the sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest To make him move, puppeteers simply re-arranged themselves, causing the huge body to literally landslide itself into place for its battle with Puss.

Not all the characters are played with the aid of puppets. The very human love interest of this show is Puss' owner the Miller (played by warm-voiced baritone Craig Verm) and the Princess (Jenna Siladie.) In fact, Puss plays matchmaker for this happy pair, ensuring the Miller's path to becoming the King's son-in-law as well as his own access to unlimited warm milk and naps on the royal throne. The show's climax, a comic wedding following the defeat of the Ogre, featured Montsalvagte tying together the leitmotifs of all the main characters in post- Wagnerian fashion, but being sure to give his sword-wielding hero the final word.

Under the baton of Neil Goren, with a chamber-sized ensemble supplanted by a piano, Montsalvatge's score combines a sense of wonder and humor with a level of great musical sophistication. Shot through with Iberian flavors (castanets are prominent) and a warm orchestral palette, this is a short but significant work from an underrated composer--just the sort of thing that this company does very well indeed.

El Gato con Botas continues its run through Dec. 14 with matinée performances in English and evening shows in the original Spanish. Visit for more information.

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