Last season, the Gotham Chamber Opera under the direction of Neal Goren presented a dazzling performance of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna in, of all appropriate places, the Hayden Planetarium. With the constellations projected above, and a simple but ingenious production depicting a mock lunar landscape, the enterprise was one of the highlights of the season.
The company has outdone itself this season with a fabulous presentation of the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge’s 1948 fairy-tale opera, El Gato con Botas, taken from the Charles Perrault tale known in English as Puss in Boots.
First produced at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the current production may have used a reduced orchestration (in a version by Albert Guinovart, with the assent of the composer) but there was no stinting in the production values, which added up to an entirely magical hour or so that enchanted an audience filled with every age group from toddlers to teens to grown-ups.
Produced in association with the Tectonic Theater Project and Britain’s Blind Summit Theatre, director Moisés Kaufman delivered a joyous, enormously playful version of the familiar story in one of Broadway’s most elegantly restored theatres, the New Victory. Built in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein (uncle of the lyricist), it spent much of the 1930s and 40s as a burlesque house.
Using puppetry derived from the Japanese Bunraku, with visible handlers dressed in black, a host of fascinating characters came to life in wondrous and hilarious fashion. The titular Puss himself, resplendent in cape and sword, plus rabbits, a diminutive king and his oddball courtiers, and most impressively, a huge ogre in six body sections, doing amazing contortions and metamorphoses, thanks to the skilled puppeteers.
Also dressed in black—but always in regional Spanish outfits—were the singers representing Puss and ogre, and Ginger Costa-Jackson and David Salsbery Fry sang these two roles with respectively brilliant and sepulchral voices. (I saw a Spanish-language performance, with surtitles.) Steven LaBrie was a handsome miller-turned-marqués (thanks to the cat), Valerie Ogbonnaya a lovely princess, and Peter Castaldi a very amusing king, all in excellent voice.
The cascade of funny effects never let up, from Puss’s preening to bunnies hopping (and avoiding a butcher’s knife), from a depiction of sea life involving several rapacious species to the hilarious jump into the ocean by the full-size miller in his underwear, after which a miniature version appeared struggling for dear life. The simple but very colourful scenery, by Andromache Chalfant, and loony costumes, by Clint Ramos, were gorgeously lit by David Lander, ending in an enchanted ogre’s palace illuminated by multiple halogen bulbs.
Montsalvagte’s score reflects moody trends from Europe in the first half of 20th-century, infused with a distinctly Catalan feeling for folk and children’s music. The romantic portions, including a lovely duet for the lovers, as well as a haunting letter song, were balanced by more jaunty comic bits that delighted the audience continuously. I daresay no pantomime version of Puss in Boots was ever this distinctive-sounding and beautifully melodic. And the “transformation” scenes here were as clever as any seen anywhere.
Though not, of course, a zarzuela, the comedy quotient was perhaps more pronounced than in many zarzuelas, and the rarity of seeing a Spanish musical work of any kind on Broadway, no less, and so well-realised, was simply astonishing . I’m sorry the run was merely a week—this could and should have run far longer to build a delighted audience.
© Richard Traubner 2010
[ Ed. It is a very great pleasure to welcome Richard Traubner as a distinguished, new contributor to zarzuela.net. We hope this will be only his first appearance of many on these pages. ]
17 October 2010