Hlas Lesa

Nov 22, 2002

The New York Times

Paul Griffiths

Collectors of rare operas will be making the trip to the Abrons Arts Center, along with anyone in search of a crisp and lively night of musical theater. The repertory could hardly be more obscure: two small-scale operas by Bohuslav Martinu. He wrote "Les Larmes du couteau" ("The Knife's Tears") in Paris in 1928, but it was not performed for more than four decades. "Hlas Iesa" ("The Forest's Voice") came seven years later, as a piece for Czech Radio.

In all probability, neither work had been seen outside the Czech Republic before Monday's opening performance.

But neglect was smartly brushed off by the vividness with which they were addressed by the Henry Street Chamber Opera.

The works also fit together well. Both have those occasional sweetly sighing harmonic maneuvers that are so special to Martinu. Both, too, are surrealist fantasies about a woman whose disturbed romantic life has her wandering the world like a lost soul. But they are entirely different in tone. Where "Hlas Iesa" has the poetry and symbolic resonance of a folk tale, "Les Larmes du couteau" is a crazy skit, very much of its time and place.

With its jazz-band scoring, featuring banjo and saxophone, and its sheer ebullience, "Les Larmes" is more instantly appealing, and this production wisely places it second. But "Hlas Iesa" is likely to stay in one's mind longer for its dream imagery, sonic and visual, and for the unsettling way that a narrator (the excellent Kathleen Chalfant) steals into the drama and out again, as if in aloof control.

Both works are done with a startling combination of sensitivity and panache. Costumes by Kaye Voyce help the singers act, while Andrew Lieberman's simple set provides a frame for the gymnastic display engineered by the director, Ned Canty, and the choreographer, Sean Curran. Best of all, the fun and high jinks go with the grain of the music, which is expertly encouraged by the conductor, Neal Goren.

Jacqueline Venable is the appealing Bride in "Hlas Iesa," with Eric Fennell an appropriately fresh and attractive tenor as the Young Forester and a wonderful gang of clown bandits. In "Les Larmes" the singers are Kristine Winkler (bright and mad as the young woman at the center), Tiffany Regal (as imposing as her name in the role of mother) and Daniel Mobbs (the leering and vocally erect Satan).