Alexandre bis / Comedy on the Bridge

Oct 14, 2014

The Wall Street Journal

HeidiI Waleson

Gotham Chamber Opera makes a point of seeking out obscure works, and its most recent discovery, a pair of zany comedies from the 1930s by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinú, was an inspired choice. The two short operas are fast-paced and witty, in a musical language that is still fresh and piquant almost 80 years after they were written, and Gotham’s perfectly calibrated staging, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, made you hope that there are more like them.

Both operas portray worlds turned unapologetically upside down.

“Alexandre bis” (“Alexander Twice,” 1937) is surrealist French farce by way of “Così fan tutte”; the libretto, by André Wurmser, is in French. Alexandre decides to test the fidelity of his wife, Armande—pretending to leave home and then returning, posing (with his beard shaved off) as a cousin from Texas. Armande recognizes the deception at once, but the two embark on an “affair” anyway. Armande quickly decides that there is no reason for her to go on being “a decent woman” and takes up with another suitor, Oscar, whom she had previously scorned. The exuberant, spiky score, with hints of Stravinsky and a prominent piano part, always feels unexpected. It is not afraid to be silly: Armande’s dream, in which she is liberated from her middle-class morality, is introduced by swoopy strings, and she imagines the two Alexandres killing each other to a mad carousel-like dance tune.

In “Comedy on the Bridge” (1935), based on a Czech play by Václav Kliment Klicpera, the music is more conventional and folk-derived but still arresting, starting with a duet between a trumpet and a violin that quickly turns dissonant, suggesting a world at war. It is a funny war: The characters, one after another, are trapped on a bridge between two opposing territories. Their safe-conduct passes allow them to get on the bridge but not off it on the other side. As their numbers increase, the vocal texture piles up—a trio becomes a quartet and then a quintet—and their situation grows increasingly frantic until an offstage battle ends in victory.

Director James Marvel united the two works through exaggerated acting that suited their farcical natures but never went overboard into camp. Cameron Anderson’s eye-catching black-and-white set had a pattern of bare trees in the background; for “Alexandre bis,” the foreground was a giant sofa that stretched the length of the stage, and for “Comedy on the Bridge,” that expanse became a bridge. Fabio Toblini designed the sharp, funny costumes, making the contrast between the elegant cosmopolitans of the first opera and the peasants of the second. Most of this clothing was also black and white, with one notable exception being Armande’s post-dream get-up: a knee-length red number that went with her newly bobbed hair and her plans for liberation. (Armande also dreamed up a pair of dancing male Demons of Remorse, in red bodysuits and pink tutus, brandishing pitchforks.) Clifton Taylor did the effective lighting.

Four excellent young singers took the principal roles in both operas. Jenna Siladie, an ebullient soprano with great stage presence, sparkled as Armande and Popelka, the first hapless character to get stuck on the bridge. Smooth-voiced baritone Jarrett Ott was properly bemused by the ways of women as Alexandre (I and II), and as Popelka’s jealous fisherman fiancé. Bass Joseph Beutel was hilarious as Alexandre’s portrait (sumptuously bearded), which comments on the goings-on (his French diction was particularly good in his spoken lines), and as Bedron, the lecherous farmer and spy who sees Popelka’s plight as an opportunity.

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