What was so fascinating about Baden-Baden in 1927 that Gotham Chamber Opera would want to recreate one particular operatic event there? Amid economically traumatized 1920s Germany, Paul Hindemith was asked by the Baden-Baden Festival to operatically ponder what constitutes art. He did so with four one-act works by Ernest Toch, Darius Milhaud, Kurt Weill and himself.
In a run of performances at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater concluding Tuesday, Gotham Chamber Opera didn't take chances on seldom-staged works not yielding revelations. The production (directed by Paul Curran and designed by noted painter Georg Baselitz and Court Watson) was so witty that higher aesthetics weren't crucial to Saturday evening's success. Time periods were mixed; lots of video was on hand. And each opera had a distinct visual approach and different cast member introducing them. Milhaud's harmonically rich Abduction of Europa, a choral opera about Zeus's seduction of Europa, had a giant abstract painting as its main scenic element and was populated by stylish Badenites in evening clothes attending an art opening.
Ernst Toch's substantial The Princess and the Pea, based on Hans Christian Andersen, was introduced by a more modern princess wearing leopard print and extremely high heels. The music was full of the composer's boney counterpoint, the princess's insomnia being imaginatively characterized with pizzicato strings plus wind solos of increasing weight, leading to a full compliment of strings. The cartoon-ish production suggested a modern reality show (with obscure references to somebody named Kardashian) – all fun though distracting when live sound and video image were separated by a nanosecond delay.
Hindemith's There and Back was introduced by a Texas-accented medic who attended the protagonist – a wife shot by her husband over her unfaithfulness – only to have time reversed by a Warhol-esque figure whose philosophical tract come with magical powers. On the two video screens, one was in color showing time as it reverse, while the other was in fuzzy black-and-white reprising the first part of the opera.
The Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill Mahagonny Songspiel (the modest forerunner to the full opera version of Mahagonny) was introduced by the evening's star, soprano Helen Donath, who chatted about Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, only to have the curtain open on an art exhibit enshrining modern health-club treadmills. As the opera's character sink into pleasure-seeking decadence, the treadmills were used by the singers in 1920s dress as fun-house rides, or, more tellingly, ways to get nowhere fast.
Donath, whose lyric soprano is in wonderful shape for any singer (much less one in her 70s) wasn't the only veteran. John Cheek gave his craggy presence to a variety of roles, amid an excellent ensemble cast. Conductor Neal Goren could've drawn more secure orchestral playing during the Toch. And though the productions worked consistently well, you knew that staging ideas were running thin in Mahagonny when semi-naked men appeared onstage – a sign of desperation.
So was it art? All four operas seemed fully realized within one-act chamber opera confines (only Milhaud felt truncated). All had important responses to their own time, though often implied more than stated. The Princess and the Pea could be seen as a commentary on old-guard aristocracy preoccupied with triviality as their world was caving in. The reckless procreation of Zeus and Europa in Milhaud yielded the Minotaur (Hitler?). Hindemith suggested that you can erase the past, but not its emotional residue. And Weill/Brecht delivered a sucker punch to superficial mercantile culture.
Musically, the operas often shared motoric machine-age rhythms and rejected the usual string-dominated textures of the previous century for something more lean and spiky. Sounds like art to me. And it didn't have to be grand to be eloquent.