|The cast of Martinú's Comedy on the Bridge at Gotham Chamber Opera
(photo by Richard Termine)
We cannot think of another company who could have brought out all the crazy humor and satire in Czech composer Bohuslav Martinú's twin bill. We didn't know opera could be so much fun. But opening night of Gotham Chamber Opera's double bill at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College was just plain down and dirty FUN. But it would be a mistake to shortchange the substantial underpinnings. Sometimes the best way to learn is with humor, not with preaching. We laughed. We learned.
In Alexander Bis we are transported to a highly stylized Parisian home populated by absurd characters and surreal situations; the acting is equally stylized in a cartoonish manner. An adorable maid (mezzo Cassandra Zoé Velasco) is dusting everything in sight with a shocking pink feather duster, the only spot of color on the highly stylized black and white set. A portrait of a man, portrayed by bass Joseph Beutel, hangs on the wall; he comments on the action and interacts with the singers.
Alexander, the man of the house, (baritone Jarrett Ott) is testing his wife's fidelity by shaving his beard and pretending to be his Texas cousin. His wife Armande (soprano Jenna Siladie) sees through the disguise but is wildly attracted to him. At night in his arms she has a nightmare involving murder and some devils prancing around in red unitards with pink tutus. (I kid you not!)
This good faithful woman, having had a taste of "infidelity" is now tempted by an athletic man she had previously rejected. An audience favorite, Oscar (tenor Jason Slayden) arrives on a bicycle in a wild and colorful costume. Poor Alexander in his jealousy has created what he feared. We got it. We loved it. We wanted to see it again!
The second one-act opera on the program was Comedy on the Bridge. In this opera, the characters are not as absurd but the situation is. Poor Popelka (the versatile Ms. Siladie, well remembered and reviewed by us last summer in Santa Fe) is crossing a bridge from a town which she has visited to find her soldier brother in an enemy camp. Her "safe conduct" gets her past the sentry of the enemy town but the "friendly" sentry at the entrance to her own town will not admit her. He is decidedly unfriendly! So the poor girl is stuck on the bridge in a "no man's land". The two sentries are amusingly costumed in identical costumes of black and white, except the colors are reversed--even the beards.
Soon she is joined by the lecherous married hops farmer Bedroň (Mr. Beutel) who imposes himself on her. He is also stranded in "no man's land". Next comes her fiancé Sykoš (Mr. Ott) who, convinced she has cheated on him, breaks off their engagement. Next to arrive is Eva, Bedroň's wife (mezzo Abigail Fischer), who is ready to divorce her husband for philandering. Finally the school master Učitel (Mr. Slayden) arrives, stumped by a riddle. The running joke through the opera is the rigidity and close-mindedness we observe in the sentries, small people given great powers.
When bullets start flying with great orchestral impact, the five trapped townspeople make peace with one another and by the end of the opera there is a happy ending. We cannot help but think about the ridiculous aspects of war and of bureaucracy. But we are thinking this with a big smile on our face.
The operas were wisely cast with talented singers who threw themselves into their roles with appropriate style, guided by James Marvel's impressive direction. Every bit of stage business was motivated and the interaction between the characters, while absurd, made sense within the context of the absurd situation into which they were thrust. Alexandre Bis was performed in French and the diction of the lower male voices surpassed that of the high female voices. (That seems to always be the case). The second opera was performed in Czech which delighted us no end. The words, although not understood by this non-Czech-speaker, lined up perfectly with the music and delighted the ear.
And what about this music, written between the two World Wars? We loved it! It was consistently accessible and varied in tone, unlike so much music of the 1920's and 1930's. To call it pleasing and tuneful is not to damn with faint praise. The tone of the music always seemed to highlight the character of the singer and the situation. We particularly liked the emphatic battle music and the tender music for Popelka. Neal Goren's conducting left nothing to be desired and the orchestra performed with verve and pizazz.
Production values were impressive all around. We couldn't imagine a better set design than that of Cameron Anderson with effective lighting by Clifton Taylor. Fabio Toblini's costumes were marvelously designed and always suited the characterizations--witness Popelka's charming peasant dress and Oscar's wildly bizarre costume.
How exciting to discover a composer largely neglected in the United States but probably given a great deal of attention in Czechoslovakia. We wouldn't hesitate a minute to see more of his works.
© meche kroop