Say this for Neal Goren: he doesn’t do things the easy way.
With the untimely – OK, disgraceful – demise of the New York City Opera, the conductor/impresario has made his Gotham Chamber Opera a vital alternative to the mighty, sometimes mightily cumbersome Met. Goren doesn’t just resurrect repertory that others ignore. He ventures productions notable for stylistic progression. Convention be damned, on various levels.
All this, of course, is laudable. Unfortunately, it isn’t invariably compelling. And, sadly, it wasn’t particularly compelling on Tuesday when he presented a pair of obscure radio operas by Bohuslav Martinů at the intimate theater of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. First came Alexandre Bis, a quaint surreal-absurdist farce accompanied by dutiful echoes of neoclassical Stravinsky. Then came Comedy on the Bridge, a simplistic satire predicated on more conventional impulses (everything being musically relative).
Alexandre Bis (aka Alexander Twice) tells a convoluted, silly tale regarding such profound matters as conjugal infidelity, a European gent posing as a California oaf and image issues arising from a shaved beard. Enough not said. Comedy on the Bridge rambles onward if hardly upward about befuddled lovers trapped (ask not why) on a bridge that separates antagonistic tribes sharing similar morals.
Goren and his splendid orchestra managed to keep the trivia rumbling and bumbling neatly, almost expressively. An ensemble of bright young singers tried nobly to sustain vigor and charm against the odds. Cameron Anderson designed an ingenious forest set symbolising black and white universes. Unable to leave bad enough alone, the director James Marvel made the first opera a precious demonstration of cutesy-dancerly kitsch, the second an exercise in sleepy-folksy cliché.
Incidental intelligence: Comedy on the Bridge was first performed over Czech radio in 1937, and initially enacted at Hunter College, New York, in 1951. It still crops up sporadically in secondary locales and workshop efforts. Alexandre Bis, also written in 1937, first reached the stage in Mannheim in 1964. The Gotham performance is listed as a US premiere. It also might be a US dernière.
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