Originally published on Parterre Box by John Yohalem.
On Saturday, a new company called Bare Opera gave its first performance, a double bill of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. One of the company’s directors made noises along the lines of New York needing a different sort of opera, in small, less formal spaces, with young performers and an intimate theatricality.
These are principles I heartily approve, but since my recent operatic experience has included a thrilling Orlando in an art gallery in the Bowery and a wonderfully theatrical Lucrezia Borgia in Bushwick, the local opera scene Bare Opera enters is not, perhaps, such a desert. It’s getting hard to see the mirage for all the oases.
That said, Bare Opera’s initial program is very promising: intriguing scores (one unusual, one familiar), sturdy young singers, an appeal to technological innovation not involving that Devil’s Instrument the microphone, and a very tight little orchestra superbly led by Sesto Quatrini.
My chief cavil with the event was its locale. The Robert Miller Gallery consists of a long, broad hallway leading to a large rectangular room. The orchestra was set up on one side of the rectangle, the playing area occupied the room’s center with a large video screen above it, while the audience was seated down the nave-like hall.
The acoustic was remarkable, the orchestral sound clear and resounding, the voices brilliant, as if in a Gothic church—individual voices rang nicely. But visibility was terrible beyond the first few rows. I felt especially sorry for young children brought to the Ravel and barely able to see the intimate action. This is a fine setting for music but not a good one for theater, and that, a theater suitable for chamber-size opera, is what New York does not have and really needs for the many talented and innovative companies who already exist and the new ones sprouting all over town.
The producers may have hoped to compensate with video projections, and a great deal of effort has been devoted to these, designed by video artist Alexandra Posen. For L’Enfant Prodigue, the screen depicted abstract swirls of colorful paint set to the surges and ebbs of Debussy’s late romantic score, a style that reminded me of Grateful Dead light shows at the Fillmore when I was a tot. The Dead decided such things were a distraction from their music, and in the case of Bare Opera, too, the art rather distracted from than enhanced the performances of the three singers. I’d have said: Raise the stage area somehow and eliminate the screen.
Debussy wrote L’Enfant Prodigue when he was 22, an entry for the Prix de Rome—the text (by Ernest Guiraud, who composed the recitatives for Carmen) was given to a dozen students. Debussy won handily. It is not difficult to see why: This is a full-bodied, passionate conclusion to the Biblical anecdote, with, if anything, more intense feeling, expressed in melody, than the drama justifies. Debussy later said, in some disgust, that there was nothing in his cantata that Massenet could not have written—I did find myself humming “Fuyez, douce image”—and the piece has been largely forgotten, except for Leontyne Price’s magical recording of the “Air de Lia” with which it opens. If it is not what we think of as mature Debussy, and the action static, it is a lovely miniature and shows three strong voices to advantage.
Liana Guberman has a smaller, tidier soprano than Miss Price, but it’s a beauty, capable of the proper yearning quality, and expands sweetly to fill a room. She was well matched by the strong baritone of Dongkyu Oh, as Simeon. TenorSungwook Kim
The stage director was Met veteran tenor Anthony Laciura, who kept it simple. His hard work lay after intermission, with the gimmicky nightmare plot of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, and here, alas, the sight lines challenged the best efforts of his eager cast.
Mezzo Véronique Rapin sang the naughty child with the proper arrogance and agreeable tone. Some productions keep the singers out of sight and have the furnishings that come to life and gloat on the child’s peril played by dancers. Lacking the budget to do such effects with panache, Bare Opera had them mimed by the singers, and their sometimes acrobatic performances did not interfere with good, direct singing. Shown (and heard) to particular advantage were Larisa Martínez as Fire, Kristina Bachrach as the Princess whose storybook the child has demolished, Briana Hunter’s squirrel and the leaping Francisco Corredor as a Frog.
Maestro Quatrini’s orchestra, sounding far larger than twelve instruments suggest, made a lively thing of Ravel’s gently jagged score, and the singers were winsome and expert, but much of the effect was diluted by the awkward playing space.
To make up for this, video director Posen, aided by Minecraft’s designer, Kupo, created a cartoon accompaniment to the opera for the lofty screen visible to all. The animation was tremendously inventive but also distracting, rather in the way a music video distracts attention from music-making. It seemed to depict a Super-Mario child running about a vast, constantly moving Lego mansion, escaping to an ever-rising castle and a limitless garden, and proved less magical than many a more earthbound staging.
It was MTV opera: Something new had to be happening at each new bar of music. This is not the ideal way to experience the elegance of operatic music-making. Bare Opera secured an excellent bunch of musicians; one would have liked to pay them more of one’s attention.
Bare Opera’s next project will be Enrique Granados’ Goyescas, a worthy choice of rarity for an intriguing new company.