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Innovative performances at the opera

By Thor Eckert Jr. / March 12, 1981



New York

The vitality of any opera house lies in its ability to introduce new works to its audiences. In New York, the two leading opera houses have always had differing approaches to that challenge. The New York City Opera has traditionally Been the more adventurous of the two, offering brand new works where the Metropolitan Opera would offer carefully selected but established ones.

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Of late, the Met has been more adventurous than usual even if not all the offerings have paid off. But the new production of two French operas and a ballet under the title "Parade" is surely one of the most auspicious things the house has done in the "innovative" category.

And the City Opera has finally brought Thea Musgrave's theatrical, compelling "Mary Queen of Scots" to New York, three years after its US premier in Norfolk, Va.

There is so much right and so little wrong with the Met's French evening.The evening is one of the few total partnerships to be seen at the Met: conductor Manuel Rosenthal, set designer David Hockney, director John Dexter, lighting designer Gil Wechsler, and a very large cast of singers have all uniquely fused their talents to bring two intimate and special operas to life.

What is wrong is the insistence of trying the three works together, rather than letting each stand on its own. This particularly compromises -- fatally -- the opener, Satie's ballet, "Parade" which lends its name to the entire evening. Director John Dexter has treated the ballet as the introduction to the evening, bringing in elements of the two other works -- Francis Poulenc's "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" and Maurice Ravel's "L'enfant et les Sortileges" -- within a carnival framework. Perhaps in the hands of a more inventive and imaginative choreographer than Grey Veredon, it might have worked, but as is, "Parade" sets one's teeth on edge rather than setting one up for the evening.

But the ballet "Parade" goes on a mere 15 minutes, and after the briefest of pauses, we are in the world of Poelenc setting Apollinaire to music, and the entire evening takes wing. Here John Dexter's investiveness in sustaining a marvelous wittiness comes to the fore as the ironic tale unfolds OF A woman who foregoes her feminity, dons a beard, and leaves her husband to fend for himself. Before the work ends, the husband makes babies -- over 40,000! -- in Apollinaire's deeply ironic tale.

But it is not just Dexter's comic touches -- and his ability to fill the house with this intimate work -- that makes "Mamelles" (and, in fact, the entire evening) so exceptional. Noted artist David Hockney has designed the sets and for the two operas, they are superb -- atmospheric, nonrealistic yet moody, whimsical, colorful, exactly to the point. "Mamelles," for instance, gives us the essence of a blue Mediterranean village.

"L'Enfant et les Sortileges" gives us a wildly distorted green and purple room that transform into a garden dominated by a huge tree with red slashes of branching. Gil Wechsler, in his best Met effort to date, has lit sets and these productions superbly.

"Mamelles" is a triumph of staging to keep an audience attentive -- one that, after all, must have trouble understanding much of the clever, punny French. But the fantasy- nightmare as seen through a child's eyes of "L'Enfant" has rarely been made to work on a stage.Dexter does not solve all the probLems, but he comes enchantingly close, and also makes it seem intimate in this vast hall. Most of the singers stand on either side of the proscenium while children enact the roles being sung. A few times, the singers wander onto the set, and that, unfortunately, confuses matters quite irreparably. Then, near the end of the work, when all the creatures meld their fury into pandemonium, a terrifying effect is merely confused in the lamest sort of fashion.