With its name changed but its adventurous spirit intact, the Lower East Side's Gotham (formerly Henry Street) Chamber Opera presented what it described as the American premiere of Heinrich Sutermeister's Die Schwarze Spinne (The Black Spider, translated here as "The Black Widow," seen Feb. 6 at the DeJur Playhouse). Giant marauding bugs, a prevailing political metaphor in the horror films of the Cold War, find a Nazi-era antecedent in this opera, originally written for radio, in 1940. It's a bleak tale, from a novella by Jeremias Gotthelf (adapted by Albert Roesler), in which a village is wiped out by a plague that's orchestrated by the Devil himself and spread by his minion, a collaborationist village girl whom he turns into a spider. Even the church, represented by a killjoy Priest, is powerless to resist the onslaught of evil, and only a mother's love stands between her child and death. This is bound to reflect the helplessness that Sutermeister, a Swiss living in Munich during World War II, felt under Nazism, and director Robin Guarino didn't shy from that interpretation, updating the story from its prescribed medieval setting, though she stopped short of outright political allegory: though the chorus of Villagers wore 1940s fashions (in costumes by Martin Pakledinaz), the Devil (tenor Matthew Chellis, high-flying, ferocious and funny) wasn't dressed as Hitler, for example.
Sutermeister (1910-95) enjoyed early success, with such champions as Karl Böhm and Carl Orff, before his work fell out of critical favor; his admirers blame the postwar taste for atonality. Sutermeister's music is indeed conservative and tuneful; it's also too pretty for Spinne's subject matter, and the composer seems as helpless artistically as he was politically when confronted with the horrors of his times. Even if this isn't an opera about Nazis, it does depict an apocalypse - but you never hear it. The harmonic language of Sutermeister's choral writing descends from Bach to Orff and no further, and he intentionally kept his very-late-Romantic melodies simple, to enhance radio listeners' appreciation. His orchestrations (for chamber ensemble comprised of piano, harmonium, percussion, lots of brass and few strings) are witty, though they should be scary (as when the Devil leads the Villagers in an orgiastic dance) or shattering.
Often beautiful, the score gave Gotham's artistic director, conductor Neal Goren, an opportunity to pursue the troupe's mission: showing off young, feisty musicians in unfamiliar repertory. Always striking, mezzo Beth Clayton sang the village girl Christine, desperately seeking salvation before she's turned into the Spider; this was a feverish performance that had Clayton literally climbing the walls of Narelle Sissons's set. Bass Kevin Burdette was sonorous and unyielding as the Priest - until the orgy, when Guarino equated his flagellation with the Villagers' excesses. Soprano Deborah van Renterghem was the embodiment of virtue in the Mother's exquisite lullaby, though she needed more power in her quasi-Wagnerian exultation after killing the Spider. The chorus mustered impressive volume and ensemble, even while cavorting in various stages of dishabille.