The Gotham Chamber Opera has a reputation for staging opera in obscure, even impractical locales. From the planetarium dome of the American Museum of Natural History (Il Mondo della Luna) to the cramped burlesque club The Box (last season's Eliogablio), this company has come to embody a new aesthetic of opera, freed from the confines of an opera house or theater. Last week, the company came up with an innovative way to mount two works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Monteverdi's I combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and the world premiere performances of I Have No Stories To Tell You, by Gotham's very own composer-in-residence Lembert Beecher.
Together, these seemingly incongruous compositions reached across five centuries to make an enduring, potent statement about war and human conflict. First up was Il combattimento, a dramatic scena first staged in 1628. This 20-minute work recreates an honorable combat between two knights in the First Crusade, and is virtually the prototype for every operatic stage combat that has followed in the long history of the genre. (It is also one of the earliest surviving scores instructing string players to play pizzicato.)
The titular combatants were played by baritone Craig Verm and mezzo Beth Clayton. Although they pushed deep into the beauties of Monteverdi's writing, neither character has much to do in the way of development. Both singers generated pleasing tone as they duelled with bright red wooden bokken in the circular acting surface. As the conflict unfurled, each knight was introduced and supported by a narrator, who supplied background to the brief story and explanation of the emotional state of each combatant. The narrator is normally played by one singer, but here the part was divided between Samuel Levine and Abagail Fischer. Moving slowly behind the knights, they stage-managed the conflict until it ended with Clorinda's extended death sequence.
This little drama was presented in the Arms and Armor Court, on a circular acting surface surrounded by a standing audience. (The effect was not unlike being at a medieval combat at a Renaissance fair.) Actors entered from far down the gallery, and huge banners reading "TANCREDI" and "CLORINDA") were suspended from the upper gallery as if announcing the title card in a fight. The musicians, a small baroque ensemble (strings, oboe, theorbo, harpsichord led by Neal Goren) were off to one side, but still clearly audible in the high-arching gallery space.
As the work ended, the audience followed a trail of guiding boom-boxes playing electronic drones through the museum's Renaissance galleries, the way carefully marked by unsmiling guards. At the end of this little parade was the high-ceilinged Medieval Sculpture Gallery, with its enormous rood screen looking like the set for the Met's old John Dexter production of Don Carlo. However, the action of I Have No Stories To Tell You was to take place on a purpose-built stage, rather like a skateboarding ramp, that was set in the middle of the chamber and lit from above. The audience sat on low benches, which did not always make the stage action visible.
Mr. Beecher's work used the same singers and instrumental forces as Il combattimento, but tells a very different tale. In fact, I Have No Stories To Tell You proved to be a harrowing account of insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Musically, the work uses hypnotic, repetitive figures, slithering strings, harpsichord and theorbo to underpin its traumatic libretto. Ms. Clayton and Mr. Verm played a husband and wife condemned to sleepless nights at the memories of her war experiences, a richly written onion-like series of layers that used repetition of the same inane late-night phrases to usher the listener into the private hell being experienced by Ms. Clayton's character, Sorrel.
The splendid qualities of Mr. Verm's instrument became readily apparent in this second opera, as his character walked a path from passivity to outright despair. Also excellent was Mr. Levine in the smaller role of Noah--it is his relationship with Sorrel that is the dark secret at the heart of this work. Sorrel's memories were represented by a Greek chorus of three Narrators (Ms. Fischer, Sarah Tucker and Rachel Calloway) whose three-part intrusions lent a surreal edge as they dropped hints and clues to what really happened on that unnamed battlefield.
If there was any objection to the staging of I Have No Stories to Tell You it was in the show's bizarre use of the ramp. Characters would run up it, thunk-ing into the hard wood and hanging in mid-air before sliding down. Or they'd simply climb to the top and slide down it, an incongruously playful set of motions for such a serious opera. Maybe next time, Mr. Beecher will consider mounting one of his works on a more conventional operatic stage.