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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Opera Review: Curtains for a Super-Spy

The Prototype Festival stages Mata Hari.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dancing undercover: Tina Miller (center) in a scene from Mata Hari.
Photo by Benjamin Heller © 2017 HERE and the Prototype Festival.
Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, known to history as "Mata Hari", is an ideal subject for opera. And now, thanks to the Prototype Festival, she is. Friday night marked the second New York performance of Mata Hari, created by the team of composer Matt Marks and Paul Peers and kicking off this January celebration of modern operatic works.

In case you've never heard of Mata Hari, she was an exotic dancer who stunned and scandalized society in the years before World War I. In 1917, she was arrested in France as a German spy, who allegedly used her wiles and wits to seduce Allied officers and gain military secrets. She was finally executed in a Paris prison in 1917 as one of that conflict's most notorious spies, and is here recreated as a kind of feminist martyr with echoes of the heroines of Puccini and Poulenc.

The star of Mata Hari is Tina Mitchell, whose slender form and soaring voice brought pathos and passion to the part. Her performance is a feminist diatribe, underlining the role of a mature, yet fading star under the unforgiving lights of the prison in which most of the opera is set. It opens with the star being stripped of her gauzes and stage jewelry, a living statue that, Pygmalion-like becomes a real and vibrant figure in the course of ninety minutes.

The outer sections of the opera focus on the former star's relationship with her jailer, Sister LĂ©onide. In a black robe and stiff, starched wimple, mezzo Mary MacKenzie was a powerful foil, going from abusive condescension to warm and humane understanding. She was a continuous presence onstage, kneeling and praying when she wasn't singing. At the opera's denouement she read Mata's last letter to her son, singing the lines in unison with Ms. Miller to powerful effect.

The many loves of her life are explored in vivid flashbacks from her abuse-filled marriage to Rudolf MacLeod to her warm relationship with the wounded Russian soldier Vadime. Ultimately, the men, doubling as the guards of Mata's prison, become interchangeable figures, most of them with impressive handlebar mustaches and (tellingly) all wearing the same uniform. The effect is hallucinatory, moving, and intense, building to a verismo climax as the clock ticks down toward the heroine's execution.

The male cast featured strong performances. Baritone Jeffrey Gavett played Colonel Bouchardon, the interrogator with a strong whiff of Scarpia about his manner. (Puccini is an influence here, name-dropped as one of Ms. MacLeod's possible past lovers and showing up in little quotes and tropes throughout the score.) High tenor Tomas Cruz played Vadime as a wounded flower, and returned toward the end of the show as the spirit of Mata's son.

In the small HERE acting space, the totality of this show proved overwhelming, often to its own detriment. All the singers wore face microphones, making it an uncertain exercise to determine the quality of their voices through the ceiling-mounted PA system. Led by Alarm Will Sound conductor David Bloom, the little four-piece ensemble (violin, electric guitar doubling banjo, upright piano, accordion) was supplanted by electronic drums, which distracted every time they entered. A minimal cabaret kit would have been a much more effective solution.

The famed CIA spy James Jesus Angleton once described his shadowy world as a "wilderness of mirrors." Designer Neal Wilkinson opted for gauzy curtains instead, using these fabrics to create the labyrinthine world of plot and counterplot, or to close off the acting area to form the walls of Mata's cell. Lights were shot through the curtains too, creating interesting visual effects and transforming this small black-box theater as needed. The curtains were moved back and forth by the male members of the cast, engulfing and surrounding Ms. Mitchell throughout the show and illustrating the fluid, complicated nature of her story.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.