Milhaud, L’Enlèvement d’Europe
Toch, Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse
Hindemith, Hin und Zurück
Weil, Mahagonny Songspiel
I tried to digest tonight’s quadruple-bill at the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York: promising concept, lousy implementation.
A summer chamber music festival in Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 1927 under the artistic direction of Paul Hindemith saw the premiere of four operas: L’Enlèvement d’Europe by Darius Milhaud, Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse by Ernst Toch, Hin und Zurück by Hindemith himself, and the Mahagonny Songspiel by Kurt Weill. Tonight’s production ostentatiously advertised itself as recreating this historic collection, transporting the audience back to that summer evening and what was, at the time, a cultural vanguard and capable still of remaining quite provocative today.
Although comic to varying degrees, this was not light entertainment. The type of people who would choose to attend such an evening’s entertainment would all naturally be a rather informed and sophisticated public. Taking that into account, director Paul Curran failed miserably in his execution, dumbing the evening down to a level which obliterated the entire concept. The originals were avant-garde for their time, and would still count as modern and even alternative. To update them would be unnecessary – especially considering the announced intent to “recreate” the 1927 festival – but if Curran wanted to do some updating he would need to demonstrate the intelligence and wit of the originals to keep these operas as much in the forefront of theatrical and artistic development as they were during their 1927 joint premiere. Instead, Curran demonstrated that he has the intelligence of a pea, much like the one placed beneath the matress of the princess in the Toch opera.
Despite claiming to be a “recreation” of that original 1927 event, it is probably safe for me to say (without having seen the original stagings) that tonight’s production bore no resemblance. The use of a movie film crew following the characters around in the Toch piece and setting two-thirds of the Mahagonny Songspiel songs on treadmills borrowed from a gym were only the two most obvious indications that this was a 2013 production and not a 1927 one. Stage blockings were busy, particularly for the Toch (the film being shot in the movie camera was simultaneously projected in three places on stage while the action was going on, there were additional flashing lights, and even the supertitles contributed to the ceaseless distractions). Before each opera, one of the singers was selected to introduce the piece – maybe not a bad idea if done seriously and in a scholarly way befitting the evening’s historical context, but instead hammed up to the fullest, with flat jokes, irrelevant asides, audience engagement and interaction reminiscent of elementary school, and with no serious insight whatsoever. If they needed the breaks to do the scene changes between operas, then they should have flipped up the house lights and put an essay or two into the program (instead of downloading text from Wikipedia).
Overshadowed by the nonsense on stage was some very good, if seldom-heard, music. The Mahagonny Songspiel, later expanded into a full-length opera by Weil (with texts by Berthold Brecht), is perhaps the only one of these four which gets performed with any regularity. Musically, the Hindemith piece also had its rich moments. The other two were worth hearing (and if staged right would be worth seeing). The orchestra, under Neal Goren, handled these often-difficult pieces well, and that made up for some of the disappointment on the evening. The cast was also acceptable individually, if not always singing well as an ensemble. Helen Donath, once a favorite of Herbert von Karajan, took top billing, and although she was appropriate in this group, it is depressing to think how far she has fallen (is this what happens with washed-up singers years past their prime?).
The recent collapse of the New York City Opera has opened the potential for other companies to assert themselves in the New York market, especially taking on the sorts of productions the Metropolitan Opera would not do. But if people want low-brow entertainment, there are plenty of cheaper (non-operatic) options in New York, whereas if people want an introduction to opera, the Met actually does that well and these four operas would anyway be an inappropriate introduction to opera. The niche in this case is high-brow, alternative, intelligent, classical performance, and the Gotham Chamber Opera simply failed to fill it.