Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Cuts Both Ways

March 12, 2012

Suzan Hanson, Roberto Perlas Gomez, and Chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2012
Surrealism was the theme for the second production of Long Beach Opera’s 2012 season, a double bill of Martinů’s The Tears of a Knife and Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias. The company, and its artistic director Andreas Mitisek who also served as conductor for the evening, went for the laughs on Saturday during the first of two performances at Long Beach’s Center Theater. This wasn’t a bad strategy for two reasons. First, surrealist works, such as the source materials for these short operas, often rely heavily on humor and ironic juxtapositions to make their points. Second, as my fellow-blogger George Wallace pointed out, Long Beach Opera has a more consistent track record with comedies or at least comic interpretations of more dramatic works. (Vivaldi’s Motezuma, Kurka’s The Good Soldier Schweik, and Shostakovich’s Moscow, Cheryomushki come immediately to mind.) And within this framework, this current production does achieve some level of success if it does so by overlooking the darker, more inherently complicated aspects of both pieces.

The first piece on the program was the quick 20 minutes of music that make up Martinů’s The Tears of a Knife. In it a young woman, sung by Ani Maldjian, falls in love with the corpse of a hanged man. Despite her mother’s pleas that she instead marry a neighbor, who turns out to be Satan, she goes ahead with her plan. She is eventually disappointed by the one-way affair and kills herself hoping to be reunited with her lover in the afterworld. She is, only to discover that he, too, has actually been Satan all along. The troupe including Suzan Hanson as the girl’s mother and Robin Buck as Satan reached for the humor in this scenario, but it never seemed to connect in Ken Roht’s attractive staging. Part of the issue here was the diluted sound of the chamber sized orchestra which, as with previous LBO performance in the Center Theater, keeps them at the rear of the stage behind a scrim. The jazz-influenced score doesn’t have a lot of time to make its impact, and musically the performance seemed dull and unfocused.

Luckily, Poulenc’s adaptation of Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias, which was both longer and larger, seemed a more natural fit for the resources at hand. Poulenc's sly wit shines through in what is often very accessible, tuneful music that Mitisek and the orchestra had a firmer grip on. Maldjian returns to play Thérèse, a woman so enamored with feminist ideals that her breasts turn into balloons and float away turning her into Tirésias. Her husband, Buck again, is so frustrated by this and his inability to meet the cultural imperative of procreation, he elects to generate 40,000 of his own offspring through the miracles of modern science. Hilarity ensues and there is a requisite happy ending. Roht’s staging comes alive with a chorus that at times appears as party goers and then later surfaces as a legion of infants who write novels about Mme. Butak among other artistic endeavors. Roht is a choreographer by trade, and the sense of movement and physical space is strong. There are some video elements designed by John J Flynn that are projected behind the cast, including images taken from Magritte, in case we failed to get the point otherwise. The cast is more certain in these proceedings including a wonderful duet between Doug Jones as M. Lacouf and Benito Galindo as M. Presto. All of this is wrapped up in candy colored outfits and scores of balloons for a conclusion that may be a tad more crowd pleasing than it needs to be. Long Beach Opera has managed a view of surrealism that is very much tuned into the humor found in the strange and unreal, but not always so in touch with the scary and dangerous side of the same coin. The program repeats on the 17th of this month.


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