|Jennifer Black and Amy Owens in On Site Opera's production of Darius Milhaud's "La Mere Coupable" (photo by Fay Fox)
It was a grand idea of On Site Opera to present little known musical adaptations of Pierre Beaumarchais' trilogy of plays about la famille Almaviva. Two years ago we thrilled to Paisiello's version of The Barber of Seville. Last year we thrilled to Marcos Portugal's iteration of The Marriage of Figaro. Last night we did not thrill to Darius Milhaud's The Guilty Mother, the final entry of the trilogy, taking place twenty years after The Marriage of Figaro. The superb performances were there. Eric Einhorn's direction worked well. The site chosen was interesting. Maestro Geoffrey McDonald conducted the International Contemporary Ensemble with his customary artistry.
What went wrong? Why would we be happy to hear the Paisiello and the Portugal again but not the Milhaud? The fault lay in the libretto and the music. Great music can survive a flawed libretto and some stories are so compelling that mediocre music can be tolerated. In this case, we found the libretto deficient in the sense that it was confusing in its adaptation from the Beaumarchais play, which was written in 1792, just before his exile. The fact that the adaptation was performed by his wife Madeline gives us a clue that this was a case of nepotism.
If you've ever wondered what happened after the Count and Countess reconciled and Figaro and Susanna were wed, here it is, according to Beaumarchais. The Count left on a long business trip. The Countess spent the night with Cherubino and bore a son named Leon. The Count was always suspicious of Leon's parentage. Never mind that he himself committed adultery and has taken the female child Florestine into his home to raise. She and Leon are in love.
A snake-in-the-grass, a scheming Tartuffe-like figure named Begearss has wormed his way into the household, taking advantage of aristocratic helplessness. Begearss plans to marry Florestine and acquire Almaviva's fortune. Thanks to bold action on the part of the resourceful Figaro, Begearss is thwarted and the two young lovers learn that they are not related by blood and are free to wed. Happy ending. Comedy? Not quite! There may have been opportunities for comedy but they were missed. This is a dreary work and the poorly fleshed out characters fail to win the audience's sympathy. What we love about the music of Mozart and Rossini is that it matches the characters and their actions. That would seem to be a basic minimum requirement for writing an opera!
We understood that, at one point, Andre Gretry proposed setting this play to music and what a pity the project fell through. Putting this story into the hands of Darius Milhaud was not a fortunate move. The 1966 score is replete with ugly dissonances and never seems connected with the onstage action. The vocal lines are devoid of melody or any form of lyricism. The singers gamely did their best with the non-melodic vocal lines and projected well over the dense orchestration, with the exception of poor Andrew Owens whose allergic affliction left him inaudible. We do recall his sweet sound from Aureliano at Caramoor. We didn't mind because he acted well!
As the guilty mother, soprano Jennifer Black sang with strength and conviction. We last caught Ms. Black at the Met in the role of Lisa in La Sonnambula. As Florestine, lovely coloratura soprano Amy Owens, so well remembered as Zerbinetta in Santa Fe, handled the high tessitura beautifully and very much looked the part. Mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand, whom we enjoyed previously as La Perichole and also singing with NYOS, handled the part of Susanna very well and, as Figaro, baritone Marcus DeLoach made a forceful opponent to the slimy Begearss, well portrayed by bass-baritone Matthew Burns.
The Count himself was sung by Adam Cannedy who has a fine baritone that showed up so well in the recent Glory Denied,: here he looked too young for the part. This was supposed to take place 20 years after the action of Marriage of Figaro. Come to think of it, Ms. Black also looked too young for the Countess. Perhaps her night with Cherubino restored her youth!
Bass Christian Zaremba, last scene as the Commendatore in Venture Opera's Don Giovanni, was excellent in the small role of the notary who appears in the last scene. It was just in the last ten seconds of the opera, in the septet, that we heard a little bit of music to which one would want to listen. Not enough! But it shows that Mr. Milhaud was capable of writing something listenable and chose not to do so.
The site chosen for this opera was an enormous garage near the West Side Highway. Instead of scene changes, the two acts were staged in different parts of the huge space, with audience seating moved to accommodate. During the first act, we felt as one might feel at a tennis match with much head turning and neck stiffening in order to read the titles which were on either side and perpendicular to the stage. The second act offered some relief with titles projected above the action and readily readable.
We have no idea why the action was set contemporaneously with Mr. Milhaud's composition. It made no sense unless the characters underwent some sort of Rip Van Winkle phenomenon. And why was the furniture threadbare and the costuming so dowdy? In the play, the Count has been spending down his fortune to cheat Leon of his inheritance but he certainly wasn't spending it on furniture or clothing, nor on pay for his servants!
We will decline to mention the production team responsible for this ugliness but will say that Shawn K. Kaufman's lighting was fine and that the French diction was quite good all around thanks to Jocelyn Dueck.
Perhaps this was the only opportunity we will ever have to witness the sequel and for this we thank On Site Opera for this courageous (but misguided) bit of programming. It was, in fact, the United States premiere but was produced recently by the Theater an der Wien as a piece of shocking regietheater. This production was part of New York Opera Fest 2017 presented by the New York Opera Alliance, of which On Site Opera is a member. Partnership with the Darius Milhaud Society was a feature and the production was dedicated to the memory of Katherine Warne, a composer and founder of the society.
(c) meche kroop