Among the many things that New York City Opera has proved it can do rather well, comedy ranks high on the list. The company has a real knack for finding fresh, talented performers with genuine stage presence -- star-level singers and aspirants alike -- capable of projecting good humor to the back rows of the cavernous New York State Theater. We've seen this recently in Handel productions like Alcina and Xerxes, as well as the Love Boat-style shenanigans of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims -- to say nothing of the company's Gilbert & Sullivan revivals, nor Broadway revivals such as its current take on The Most Happy Fella. And we saw it again tonight in the New York City premiere of Mark Adamo's Lysistrata, the newly arrived final commission of impresario David Gockley's historic Houston Grand Opera regime.
From Aristophanes, Adamo snagged a title, a premise of sexual embargo as a means to end to an unpopular war, a couple of characters, and three scenes. The rest he concocted from whole cloth, in the process creating an plot in which that original battle of the sexes is swiftly overshadowed by a deeper thread: the battle of personal desire versus civic duty. Adamo fleshed out the masculine side of the equation, giving his military men plausible motivation for their eternal bellicosity: serving the homeland, protecting the women. The central relationship in Lysistrata is that between Lysia, a mostly invented female character, and her lover, the Athenian general Nico, who Lysia hopes to tempt out of the army and into the sack.
Adamo's almost unceasingly funny first act doesn't stint on lowbrow humor. Dusty envoys hack and fart; the wives of the opposing army sing in an Elmer Fudd-derived dialect; the scoring under a reference to, errm, underendowed males is accented by a tiny ping on glockenspiel. (Most of the gags in Lysistrata, it's probably fair to say, are underlined by cute orchestration.) Characters often break the fourth wall, selling punchlines straight to the audience in a manner familiar in musical theater, if rare in the opera house. Bawdy wordplay is everywhere in evidence -- "She suffers from unplucked flax," for example.
Equally humorous, if less blatant, is the way Adamo recycles his themes in pointedly different circumstances: The music he provides for Lysia as she checks off her tools of seduction is the same that he gives to the two opposing armies as they confirm their battle readiness. Nico's lascivious bedroom serenade turns up again later as well, but uttered by a different character under vastly different circumstances.
Despite an opening chorus sung by outrageously priapic soldiers, the second act darkens considerably; forced abstinence, it's clear, has taken its toll. (That's not to suggest that The Funny disintegrates, especially for opera partisans who get it when the spear-wielding Spartan wives repeatedly bellow, "Ho-jo-to-jo!") Just as Lysia's resolve wavers almost fatally, a chorus of Athenian and Spartan women offers a wrenching chorus tallying the cost of war in purely human terms. "I am not my own," Lysia sings in the evening's show-stopping aria, at last truly comprehending the cost of personal denial in service of the greater good. Yet even as peace is grudgingly announced and lovers reunited, belligerence exacts still more loss; this leads to a deus ex machina intervention and an ensemble conclusion out of Mozart or Verdi.
City Opera made a pretty much unimpeachable case for Lysistrata, populating it with bright primary performers including the bold, bewitching Emily Pulley as Lysia and the ardent Chad Shelton as Nico. Myrna Paris's Kleonike was ideally strident and sympathetic in equal measure; Jennifer Rivera stole scenes and tugged heart strings as Myrrhine, and Victoria Livengood was a fearless Lampito. The supporting cast was uniformly aware and savvy, with Amanda Borst (Xanthe), Jennifer Roderer (Sappho) and -- as always -- Jennifer Tiller (Alecto/Dika) commanding serious attention. George Manahan and his orchestra did well by Adamo's ingenious score, which constantly alternated between glinting spareness and succulent gush. Michael Kahn's direction served the plot happily, if occasionally obscuring this or that voice by positioning of bodies; so, too, did Derek McLane's economical set, which made creative use of a relatively simple, rotating cubical structure at center stage. Murrell Horton's costumes ranged from curiously raggy (at the opening) to seriously slutty (in an altogether appropriate way, I promise).
If I have any reservation, it's simply that by the closing stretch, the characters seem to have endured far too much for a divine push of the Cosmic Reset Button to make everything right. True, as the oft-hymned Ares and Aphrodite arrive to proclaim, the battle -- between the sexes as well as between sovereign nations -- is potentially never-ending, and only its participants can see fit to learn from mistakes and call a truce. But having suffered as much as they had by the conclusion, Lysia and Nico -- not to mention Myrrhine and her freshly resurrected Kinesias -- seemed to deserve something more than platitudes for all their woes. (Then again, Richard Strauss probably would have killed them all and turned them into constellations or something.)
I quibble. It was hard to come away from tonight's premiere without a sense of renewed faith in the possibility that contemporary opera can deal with both the baggage of genre history and the demands of a contemporary audience. Adamo, in only his second big-stage piece, neatly proves that it can be done -- and with a show that's genuinely entertaining, to boot. In one of the several interviews I read prior to the premiere, Adamo refers to the setting claimed by a modern adaptation of Aristophanes's The Frogs, by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim -- "The time is now; the place is ancient Greece." And so it was with Lysistrata. In spite of its antique milieu, I haven't seen any other new opera recently -- not An American Tragedy, not Doctor Atomic -- that felt more wholly present than this one.
Prince - 3121 (Universal)
Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Bowery Poetry Club, 01.20.06, and CBGB, 11.02.05 (MP3 downloads from DJA's blog)
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