Darius Milhaud was an assiduous composer, at times perhaps too assiduous for his own good. He could achieve delightful simplicities, as in his jazz-tinged ballet score “La Création du Monde” (1923). Then again, there were complex tangles, like his late opera “La Mère Coupable” (“The Guilty Mother,” 1965), a work chock-full of musical busyness, with the instruments often going one way and the singers another. And On Site Opera was up for the challenge as it presented the work at the Garage in West Midtown, in what it calls the United States premiere.
Based on the final play of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, “The Guilty Mother” (On Site uses the English title but the French libretto, by Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s wife) is therefore a sequel of sorts to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Milhaud picks up the tale some 20 years after Mozart leaves off, with familiar characters: Figaro, Suzanne, the Count Almaviva and his Countess, and the guilty mother, whose secret finally comes to light.
But they are more or less history, the new young lovers being Léon, a product of an affair between the Countess and Mozart’s irrepressible and now-dead Cherubino; and Florestine, an illegitimate daughter of the Count. And there is an interloper in the household, Bégearss, bent on making off with Florestine and the remnants of the decaying Almaviva fortune. All’s well in the end, as Figaro exposes Bégearss’s treacheries, and it becomes clear that despite earlier consternation to the contrary, Léon and Florestine share no parentage and can wed after all.
The On Site production, presented in modern, mostly casual dress and directed by Eric Einhorn, unfolds in two locations in the sprawling Garage, and the audience shifts seats at intermission. In my case the move meant losing a clear view of the projected English titles to an awkwardly placed and partly obstructed view of them. It was unclear what was site-specific about the building, an 18th-century piano factory, except perhaps a touch of dereliction suggesting the hard times that have befallen the Almavivas.
Musically, the performance was remarkably good on Thursday night, with a strong cast: Marcus DeLoach as Figaro; Marie Lenormand, Suzanne; Adam Cannedy and Jennifer Black, the Count and Countess; Matthew Burns, Bégearss; and Amy Owens, Florestine. Andrew Owens, as Léon, was said to be suffering from allergies, but he soldiered through in restrained fashion, replacements not being readily available in such a rarity.
Why remarkable? Mr. Burns summarized it best in a post-performance discussion, saying that not only does the instrumental writing fail to support the singers, it poses “almost the antithesis of support.” The sounds themselves are often wonderful in their neo-Classical and polytonal colorations, but try to find in this complex texture, say, an E flat for your next entry. The singers, the conductor Geoffrey McDonald said, “are being assailed on all sides by wrong pitches.”
And this in a reduced instrumentation by Nicholas DeMaison. Mr. McDonald led the International Contemporary Ensemble in a crack performance.
Continue reading the main story