“Is reality TV art?” asked the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, dressed as a Kim Kardashian look-alike in heels and a leopard-print dress, tossing a long black mane while flouncing around the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on Wednesday evening.
Ms. Rivera was introducing Ernst Toch’s “Princess and the Pea,” part of the Gotham Chamber Opera’s stylish “Baden-Baden 1927,” a reconstruction of the four one-act operas commissioned for an avant-garde festival in Germany, a forum for the question of what constitutes art. Art and entertainment were in abundant supply in Gotham’s brilliantly designed production, with sets by Court Watson and the German neo-Expressionist painter Georg Baselitz. The company has earned a strong reputation in recent years for its imaginative, tightly wrought offerings of unusual repertory; with the unfortunate demise of New York City Opera, it now seems poised to take a larger role.
In “The Princess and the Pea,” cameras onstage followed every move in the royal household as the King (the bass-baritone John Cheek) and the Queen (the veteran soprano Helen Donath, with short black hair evoking the matriarch of the “real life” Kardashian family) tried to find a match for their hapless son (the tenor Daniel Montenegro). The charismatic Ms. Rivera sang vividly as his nanny, her performance a highlight of the evening.
A cameraman even followed the Princess, portrayed with flair by the excellent soprano Maeve Höglund, into bed, the audience voyeuristically watching her facial expressions magnified on screens to the side of the stage. During a set change, Ms. Donath (a dynamic performer throughout the evening) asked the audience whether there is such a thing as good taste, a question that certainly doesn’t seem to trouble the peacocks of reality TV or their insatiable followers.
Paul Curran’s direction proved effective here and in the other three mini-operas, beginning with Darius Milhaud’s eight-minute “Enlèvement d’Europe” (“The Abduction of Europa”), which featured a seductively mooing chorus line of singers clad in stylish black cocktail outfits framed by a giant painting by Mr. Baselitz. The baritone Michael Mayes sang characterfully as Pergamon, the disgruntled suitor of Europa (Ms. Höglund).
Neal Goren, Gotham’s artistic director, inspired lean, vivid music making throughout, including in the quirkily acidic score of Hindemith’s wry “Hin und Zurück” (“There and Back”), staged with an alluring black-and-white set and video projections designed by Driscoll Otto.
Ms. Höglund again sang effectively as the adulterous Helene, murdered by her husband (the tenor Matthew Tuell), who commits suicide. But the couple spring back to life, and the opera ends with the tranquil opening breakfast scene.
The works concluded with Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny Songspiel,” a seven-number “scenic cantata” and his first collaboration with Bertolt Brecht, which later evolved into the duo’s experimental opera “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”
Voracious appetites are parodied in Weill’s song cycle, whose complex score meshes jazz and cabaret. Its challenges were deftly surmounted by the cast, which included Ms. Rivera, wearing a red flapper dress, as Bessie. The work, which includes well-known numbers like “Alabama Song” and “Benares Song,” explores materialism, misery, decadence and depravity — the treadmills onstage suggesting the futile movements of its unhappy protagonists.