The new Camerata opera has “something familiar, something special…” in its double program Boulanger-Ravel at the Irondale Center
The new opera season began for me away from the raging crowds of Lincoln Center, in Brooklyn’s Irondale Center near BAM, with a pair of short pieces by French composers that had decidedly their charm.
While Maurice Ravel, composer of L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE of the evening, is best known, for his many works for piano, the short opera L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES, and the most famous/notoriously “Boléro”, perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the curtain raiser, FAUST ET HELENE, by Lili Boulanger, arranged by Thomas Juneau and Hilary Baboukis. Together they created a light-hearted but compelling program, lovingly performed by New Camerata Opera, under the musical direction of Kamal Khan and director John de los Santos, with animated sets and projections by Atom Moore, lighting by Joshua Rose and costumes by Ashley Soliman.
Boulanger was the younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the leading composers of the 20th century (although she thought she had no compositional talent of her own). Her life was cut short by illness (1893-1918) but the composer’s few pieces nonetheless leave musicians wondering where she might have gone if her life had continued.
The cantata began with echoes of Richard Wagner before taking an entirely different path – rich and French, showing its skills using just a few voices and a chamber orchestra. The music carried the audience away with its account (libretto by Eugène Adenis) of another aspect of the life of Goethe’s “Faust”. Bringing Helen of Troy into the story is a far cry from Gounod’s journey with Faust and Mephistopheles, though neither she nor Gounod’s Marguerite end well, and Faust cannot walk away from dark arts and evil deeds of the devil.
Yet Boulanger dazzles with her talents as a musical narrator in the cantata, under the baton of Khan, and the rich vocals (during the Saturday, September 17 performance) of mezzo Eva Parr as Hélène, baritone Chris Carr in that of Faust and the baritone Markel Reed in that of Méphistophélès. (Faust’s troubled sleep is overseen by a pair of spirits.) Mezzo Parr (also co-founder of the company) was particularly enchanting, as she proved a second time, as the sex-hungry Concepcion in the Ravel.
The opera buffa L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE was first performed in Paris in 1911, in a clock shop in central Spain. Franc-Nohan’s libretto (arranged here by Klaus Simon) follows the fortunes of Torquemada, a hardworking watchmaker, whose young wife takes advantage of his absences – he is in charge of the proper functioning of the city’s timepieces – to get by with a collection of laughable lovers. It resembles musical comedy more than typical opera (even buffa-style) and features a host of charming melodies, lively dances and folksong elements, which combine elements of French and Spanish chanson in an orgiastic and burlesque farce.
The cast brings out the comedic elements with aplomb – even baritone Reed (who was the devil of the first half) as muleteer, manages to keep a straight but delighted face for most of his fun role, with the baritone Carr as Gonsalve, tenor Gabriel Hernandez as Clockmaker, and practical bass-baritone Andy Dwan as Don Inigo Gomez.
It was a minor but thoroughly enjoyable evening that gave us hope for more substantial things to come in the 2022-23 season.
Further performances of the double bill will take place until September 24. See the new Camerata opera website for more information.