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Wolf Trap Closes Season with Surreal Double-Bill

Mireille Asselin (Thérèse) in Les mamelles de Tirésias, Wolf Trap Opera (photo by Teddy Wolff)

The gods of ancient Greece punished presumption. This was the theme, in a way, that united the double-bill of early 20th-century French opera that closed the season at Wolf Trap Opera, heard on Sunday afternoon. The eponymous sailor of Milhaud's Le pauvre matelot (1927), on a libretto by Jean Cocteau, is punished for returning home to his waiting wife but deceiving her -- not by the gods, but by his wife herself, unknowingly. Hera punished the prophet Tiresias by turning him into a woman, during which time he even gave birth to children before Hera turned him back. The story was reversed and updated by Guillaume Apollinaire in his play Les mamelles de Tirésias, set as an opera by Poulenc in 1947, in which a wife named Thérèse proclaims her feminist independence and is turned into a man.

Apollinaire used a neologism to describe the tone of his play, "surréaliste," which he explained by adding that "if it is not newer than everything found under the sun, it has at least served to formulate no credo, no artistic and literary affirmation." The two operas form an odd pairing, but the musical styles of the two composers have something in common and one is left scratching one's head by both of them. Each opera also featured a soprano who is one of the company's major discoveries of the last couple years. Dramatic soprano Tracy Cox had a compelling turn as the sailor's wife, demonstrating a serious side that complemented her turn as Alice Ford in last year's Falstaff, both with a powerful instrument that is deployed with compelling pliancy and force. Lyric soprano Mireille Asselin, who was a fairy-light Nannetta in the same production last season, was equally fine in the role of Thérèse, created for Poulenc's soprano muse Denise Duval, taming the role's high-flying excesses with a comic edge that lightened the more incomprehensible parts of the story.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Wolf Trap Opera presents engaging French duo: Sailors and breasts (Washington Post, August 11)

---, Wolf Trap Opera, Castleton Festival launch unevenly but laudably on same weekend (Washington Post, June 29)

Charles T. Downey, 'Carmen' at Wolf Trap (Ionarts, July 29)
In the same category was the hilarious performance of baritone Tobias Greenhalgh as the husband in Les mamelles, who had both the extended high range for the role and the confidence and comic range to pull off singing much of the evening in drag. Tenor Robert Watson had the power side of the role of the sailor in Le pauvre matelot, if not quite the head voice needed at a few points. Norman Garrett and Ryan Speedo Green were effective as the sailor's father-in-law and friend, although further French pronunciation coaching is needed. Baritone Joo Won Kang was fun as both the theater director and the gendarme, and many of the company's studio artists filled out the rest of the cast.

Conductor Timothy Myers, whom we have reviewed at the Castleton Festival and at Wolf Trap before, had a good handle on both scores, although allowing the orchestra too much free rein in that some of the singers sometimes struggled to be heard. This was surprising in Les mamelles, since the performance did not use the complete orchestration, with only one of each woodwind, brass, and harp (a substantial and disappointing reduction, but necessary because of the constraints of the pit at the Barns -- hear the full effect in this performance from the Opéra de Lyon). The staging by Matthew Ozawa was minimal but caught something of the essence of each work, through simple means, like a white steel frame box that surrounded the sailor's wife in Le pauvre matelot, setting her off in her loneliness, and the two little pink balloons that floated out of Asselin's dress when Thérèse began her transformation in Les mamelles.

This performance will be repeated on August 16, in the Barns at Wolf Trap.

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