Die schwarze Spinne

Feb 08, 2004

The New York Times

Anne Midgette

The plague that devastated the small village has passed, but only because Christine, one of the villagers, has inadvertently kissed the Devil. When she confesses this act, the villagers cast her out. And when she then fails to capture for the Devil the unbaptized baby he desires, he turns her into a black widow spider, which roams through the village infecting everyone anew until the baby's mother snuffs out the spider's life.

This plot could be developed into a melodrama. But Heinrich Sutermeister, the Swiss composer who wrote ''Die Schwarze Spinne'' (''The Black Widow'') in 1935, didn't develop it much at all. ''The Black Widow'' -- which the Gotham Chamber Opera gave its American premiere at the Harry de Jur Playhouse on Friday night -- is a handful of ideas, both musical and dramatic, presented rather baldly. Its two-dimensional characters don't change much in its hourlong course, and its musical ideas are loudly stated in set pieces that repeat them without much variation.

It's true that the opera is full of nice sounds. Originally written for radio, it has a pleasingly unusual orchestration: light on strings, heavy on brass, with a piano and harmonium flanking the tiny orchestra pit. It offers traces of dark jazz, cabaret and gentle lullaby, offsetting vocal lines with striking moments of percussion or interesting combinations of brass and keyboard. But it isn't interesting enough to hold an entire evening by itself.

That is a shame, because the musical standards and production values of this production were so high they seemed wasted on this slender opera. Robin Guarino, the director, set the action in the late 1940's (when Sutermeister reworked his radio opera for the stage), thus establishing the plague as World War II (but fortunately resisting the temptation to extend the metaphor by making the Devil a Nazi). Narelle Sissons's fine sets were dominated by grille units on wheels that became in turn a church confessional, the prison bars of the villagers' censure and a fence across which the spider clambered.

Beth Clayton, a strong, beautiful, dangerous presence with a warm, dark, round mezzo-soprano to match, made everything that was to be made out of the title role, delivering her intense arias with fine passion and soaring top notes to compensate for passages where Sutermeister's orchestration drowned out her middle voice. The composer also sent his soprano, the baby's mother, on unfortunate vowels up to heights that Deborah van Renterghem had to work hard to navigate in her generally pleasing lullaby aria. The Devil's role was particularly one-sided, but Matthew Chellis, a tenor, made the most of that side, singing solidly and being evil without lapsing into operatic Mephistophelean stereotype.

All of the singers seemed to be trying to make as big a sound as possible, but most notably Kevin Burdette as the Priest, who thereby introduced an element of unsteadiness into a respectable bass voice. The urge to be loud may have been furthered by all the trumpets and trombones in the pit, although Neal Goren, the company's co-founder and artistic director, did a fine job conducting an opera that he was excited to champion. There will be other pieces in Gotham's future that are more worthy of his efforts.