Performing Arts: Music
October 26, 2013
Commencing its 12th season, Gotham Chamber Opera presented its recreation of the composer-organized Baden- Baden Festival performance of July 17, 1927. The historic one-evening performance featured the premieres of four one-act operas, and on October 23, 2013 the program - now dubbed "Baden-Baden 1927" - returned to the stage with some clever modern twists.

Artistic Director/conductor Neal Goren has been developing the idea of this quadruple-opera revival for almost as long as the Gotham Chamber Opera’s existence. With the assistance of Director Paul Curran, the ambitious recreation at last became a reality. Opening the production was composer Darius Milhaud's "L'enlèvement d'Europe" (The Abduction of Europa). The buzz of the audience calmed to a hush as performers in all-black cocktail attire quietly entered the stage, champagne flutes in hand. Their gaze and implied social banter over a bright painting of an arm clenched with a fist, surrounded by gentle outlines of flowers, requests our attention.

The eight-minute opera proceeds with a red-gowned woman stealing the spotlight, soon approached by a man in a white suite with a splay of the painting's design across it: meet Europa and the disguised God Zeus in a modern day swanky art gallery. Complete with an ensemble traveling across the stage in stylized steps, the music builds with the heated passion of the two, and a suitor scorned is left lying on the floor.

It is set designer and German painter Georg Baselitz's works that become the intersection of the creative undertones within "Baden-Baden 1927." A central question is posed to the audience right away, "What is art and where is it going?" As Baselitz's paintings ask this through various reexaminations of the same subject, we are reminded that all four composers were asking the same question upon creating their operas back in 1927 Germany. In 2013 New York City, each opera is made to live within a contemporary perspective, which is seamlessly integrated under Curran's direction.

Composer Ernst Toch's "Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse" (The Princess and the Pea) is particularly memorable in its rendition as a taping of a "Keeping up with the Kardashians" episode. The fairy tale's premise plays well with the notion of reality television: what is presented to us as reality not always is. A camera crew follows around soprano Helen Donath, as she coyly sings for the cameras while expressing her concern about marrying off her son. Once a young woman enters, the royal family's quest to determine the legitimacy of her princesses-ness ensues, with a pea, some flirtation, and a tantrum atop a multi-mattressed bed included. A live feed is visible on various screens onstage throughout, and the added "off-camera" moments of hair touch-ups and un-staged interactions offer a comedic touch.

Next is Paul Hindemith’s "Hin und zurück" (There and Back), a twelve-minute opera chronicling a husband’s discovery of his wife’s affair, which promptly erupts in her murder and his suicide. After a wise man notes the trivialness of it all in the grand scheme of things, the action promptly unravels backwards, ending in the peaceful breakfast scene with which it began. Most clever is how this opera begins as a black-and-white film, triggered with the projection of an old-time movie countdown, and begins with carefully shaded costumes, pale skin, and gray hair. Upon the reverse, everything - their costumes, hair, and prop - shift to in-color.

Closing the evening was the "Mahagonny Songspiel" by composer Kurt Weill, noted as the best-known opera of the four. The product of a stylistic exercise, it’s a collection of six songs that nod to a story-line without allowing for any real dialogue or character development. The performers venture from the city streets to an art gallery with treadmills on display. Each song entertains, highlighting a collective desire for whisky, one woman's search for "the next pretty boy," and hope to live off of five dollars a day. It's a humorous look at the expensive and disappointing life in a made-up place called Mahagonny whose inhabitants compare to hell itself.

Impressive in this four-opera pursuit is the fully produced nature of each with elaborate sets (Baselitz and Court Watson), costumes (Watson), lighting (Paul Hackenmueller), and projections (Driscoll Otto). Short interludes between each are filled with informal comments by cast members and good old-fashioned audience participation.

"Baden-Baden 1927" proved to be a truly well-rounded evening full of vibrant music and drama, achieving a balance of honoring the past while acknowledging the present.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY - Jennifer Thompson

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