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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.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Opera Review: Après de La Belle Epoque

The Manhattan School of Music offers a French double bill.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Images related to L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (left) and Persée et Andromède
presented as a double bill this week by the Manhattan School of Music.
French opera in the 1920s was marked by a spirit of wild experimentation. Composers, shocked by the destruction of the First World War, explored subjects from childhood or Greek mythology in an attempt to reach some sort of musical truth. This week, the Manhattan School of Music presented a pair of these works from 1924: Jacques Ibert's Persée et Andromède and Maurice Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges, in the conservatory's final opera production of this current season.

This production, seen Friday night with the school's second cast, marked the first time that Ibert's opera has ever been staged in North America. It retells the story of Perseus' rescue of the maid Andromeda from a sea monster, but the libretto (by the composer's brother under the pseudonym "Nino") gives the action an ironic (and very French) twist. When Perseus  finally arrives, he proves to be an arrogant jerk. Andromeda realizes that her true love is the sea monster. Her devotion is rewarded, as the slain beast turns intoa handsome prince.

Ibert's score is demanding, hosting a wealth of orchestral details played by a very large orchestra. (The limited Borden pit was expanded on either side of the stage for the performance to accomodate harp, extra percussion and keyboard instruments.) These big forces sometimes proved to be too much for Ms. Holdsworth to overcome. Despite a slightly dry tone in her upper register, she had a warm stage presence as she acted out the heroine's plight.

Persée et Andromède was mounted in an art gallery before a reproduction of Giuseppe Cesari's oil painting of the subject, with Andromeda as a sleeping gallery visitor, Perseus as a puffed-up patron and Cathos as an ordinary security guard who battled the hero with a MagLite flashlight. Other touches included giggling Nereids (portrayed as a gaggle of uniformed school-girls), a cleaning lady and even an artist (a silent role) who stopped sketching the moment Perseus arrived.

As Perseus, Tachwan Ku was the best voice on display here. He sang the role with swagger and a big, virile sound that brightened when put under pressure. He was well matched by bass Hidenori Inoue as Cathos, the monster. Mr. Inoue sang with sonorous, dark tone and conveyed the longing in the sea-monster's plight. In his transformation at the end, he produced bold, heroic tone in a role that reminds one of later operas by Richard Strauss.

The gallery set was replaced by a child's bedroom for L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, the Colette-written story of a naughty child whose playthings, schoolbooks and damaged furniture come to life and exact retribution for previous misbehavior. Amy Yarham sung the Child with a realistic, androgynous quality. Among the more spectacular sortileges were soprano Yeon Jung Lee (Fire), Christopher Stockslager (the Black Cat, imagined here as a Marlon Brando-type rogue) and Emma Mansell as the broken Chinese teacup.

With its huge cast, a staging of this opera where everyone gangs up on the Child can be chaos. Director James Robinson solved the problem by mounting the show on a split-level stage, as a kind of revue. This allowed all the voices to be heard clearly even as it diminished the work's sense of dread. The garden scene opened up the back of the big stage, and featured the chorus dressed as birds, birches and tree-frogs, who played playful hopscotch even as they admonished the wayward Child. Careful choral direction paired off here, as they singers produced a descending canon at the work's climax that was lovely to hear. 

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