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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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Opera Review: Early Child Development

Bare Opera takes its first steps with Ravel and Debussy.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Véronique Rapin as the Child in L'Enfant et les Sortileges.
Photo credit: Jose Lara © 2015 Bare Opera.
It is quite something to be attendant at the birth of an opera company. On Monday night, in the airy Robert Miller Gallery on the extreme west of 26th St. in Chelsea, the Bare Opera mounted the third and final performance of its inaugural production: an ambitious double bill of Debussy's L'Enfant Prodigue and Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges. This young company is one of many determined to present an alternative to the large corporate-backed opera house, enriching and enlivening the New York opera scene and providing much-needed opportunity for young singers.

These two works couldn't be more different. Debussy wrote this Biblical cantata as a graduation exercise and submitted it to win the Prix de Rome in 1884. (He won, by the way.) Ravel's L'Enfant is the second and last of his operas. With a libretto by the celebrated poet Colette, this is a whimsical fable about a misbehaving pre-teen who gets their comeuppance at the hands of singing animals (there is a duet for two mewling cats), angry, broken furniture and a vengeful grandfather clock.

A strong trio of young singers sang the Debussy, a work that shows the composer laboring under the post-Wagnerian influence of Chausson in an effort to secure his professional future. This is a far cry from Pelléas et Melisande: it is straight-up music drama over a surging orchestra. Hints of Wagner's more pious moments abound, particularly noticeable in the descending figured bass and massed trio at the end.

The opening scenes were dominated by Liana Guberman as Lia, upset at the disappearance of her fully grown son. Ms. Guberman's pliant, dark-toned instrument lifted smoothly over the reduced and carefully balanced orchestration. Baritone Dongkyu Oh was a sonorous presence as Simeon, the father. Finally as the Son himself, the tenor Sungwook Kim was an impressive presence vocally and a committed actor as he huddled in recovery from his ordeals at the cantata's climactic moment.

As the Child in Ravel's opera, Véronique Rapin embodied this complex part perfectly, with sulky shoulders and a pouting demeanor that belied the power and strength of her silky mezzo. With the large cast switching rapidly between roles, this became an engrossing and refreshingly minimal take on this wild fairy tale. Standouts in the ensemble included Mr. Kim as the martial-arts fighting teapot, soprano Larisa Martínez in the role of Fire, Francisco Corredor as the manic embodiment of a math textbook, and soprano Kristina Bachrach as the Princess and a singing armchair.

Both operas were performed under a projection screen with the actors moving in front of the audience in the wide end of the bottle-shaped main gallery space. The orchestra, eleven players strong, were under the baton of conductor Sesto Quatrini. They were off to stage right. The sound projected smoothly down the hallway. The audience, packed into narrow ranks might have had trouble seeing the stage action, but the bright acoustic and power of this young cast brought the message of the music across.

The production, conceived by director Anthony Laciura, incorporated multi-media images by art director Alexandra Posen. Swirls of colored paints and oil accompanied the Debussy, suggesting the blowing deserts of the Middle East and the family crisis of the prodigal son's return. For the Ravel, all the visuals were drawn directly from an unexpected source. A tiny animated figure and brick-by-brick castles, forests and cats were drawn from the popular videogame MineCraft. This was the perfect, quirky accompaniment to Ravel's Lilliputian opera.

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