Heinrich Sutermeister, a Swiss composer little known in the United States, was given a riveting posthumous introduction Feb. 6 by the Gotham Chamber Opera, which staged the U.S. premiere of his grim one-acter "Die Schwarze Spinne" ("The Black Widow"). Sutermeister died in 1995; Gotham's founder and conductor Neal Goren notes that he discovered the composer's songs while he was a student in London, and about five years ago came upon a recording (now out of print) of "The Black Widow." He was hooked, and he and his forces have contrived a powerful presentation of this 1935 radio opera at the handsomely restored Harry de Jur Playhouse on Manhattan's Lower East Side. [The Gotham Chamber Opera was formerly known as the Henry Street Chamber Opera.]
There's nothing cheerful about the novella by one Jeremias Gotthelf, based on a Swiss folk tale, that forms the plot. A village has been spared a devastating plague because the young Christine has been seduced into kissing the Devil in exchange for his mercy. She confesses to the Priest, who banishes her and reveals her secret; she is reviled by the villagers whom she has saved, but the Devil promises that she may redeem her soul if she will steal for him an unbaptized baby. She fails by seconds (the Priest arrives in the nick of time), and is transformed into a spider. Roaming the village and poisoning the populace with deadly bites, she is eventually brought down by the mother of the child she tried to abduct.
Sutermeister was a student of Carl Orff, and the blunt, pulsing directness of the score, its pacing throbs and reiterated motifs, reflect something of his teacher's style. Rhythms pound, unison choruses deliver their message without ambiguity, solo roles -– with the exception of the gentle Mother -– are intense and highly charged. Christine's anguished outpourings are part recitative, part Sprechstimme (Schoenberg comes to mind), and her ravings of despair can stand up to any mad scene currently on the boards. There's an episode of tavern debauchery that Sutermeister's slightly older contemporary Kurt Weill might well have taken pleasure in, and the 15-member orchestra, largely winds, brass, and percussion, has elements of Weill's sardonic edge.
The Gotham's great achievement was to create tension, even angst, in the unfolding of this strange tale. Goren's soloists, all associated with larger and better-known companies, were searingly adept. Mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, a New York City Opera/Dallas Opera veteran, was almost frightening in the heat she generated in the part of Christine -- wild-eyed, writhing, a vocal powerhouse. Kevin Burdette's resounding bass brought emotional depth to the Priest's soul-searching, and tenor Matthew Chellis strutted and sneered commandingly as the Devil. Deborah van Renterghem's clear, melodious soprano contributed to a touching portrayal of the Mother, the only really lyrical role in the opera.
Gotham's production, a dark stage with movable, cage-like bars that sometimes enclosed the Priest and sometimes imprisoned Christine, was strikingly illuminated by Jane Cox's design of shifting beams of colored light that cast looming shadows against gray walls. The 12-member, black-clad chorus was smartly choreographed, and the final spectacle of Christine's transformation into the spider managed to escape silliness (she remains in her simple dress –- no spooky bug disguise –- and the imagination supplies what is needed). Costumes were mid-1930s, reflecting the time of the opera's composition.