It is truly impressive that the compact theater in which I recently saw Dead Dog Park could be used to house an opera. Granted, this one was produced by the appropriately name “little Opera theater of ny” and there are some obvious shortcomings. Nonetheless, the effort is to be admired and, judging by the smiles around me, the outcome is enjoyable at its own level.
What adaptor/director Philip Shneidman has done is wrap a short comedic opera, L’amant Anonyme, within the true story of its groundbreaking composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. (It should be noted that in the opera world “comedic” means that no one is lying dead centerstage when the curtain comes down.) Chevalier de Saint-George, the mullato son of a French plantation owner and his slave, is best known as the first classical composer of African ancestry. Scholars have long thought that L’amant Anonyme was inspired by his personal dilemma of being able to love but not marry any of the many white European women in his circle. This production strengthens the parallel between fact and fiction by having the same actor play St George and his leading man, Valcour. The script incorporates documented biographical material including the composer’s imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, his exceptional fencing skills and reaction of the Caucasian opera community when it was proposed that he be named director of the Académie royale de musique. These sections are separated from those taken from the libretto by having the actors announce the act and scene numbers to the audience.
The music, played by the accomplished New Vintage Baroque Chamber Ensemble under the director of Elliot Figg, is pleasant. If you like Haydn, you’ll be nodding your head here. That they managed to squeeze eight instrumentalists onto this stage at all is miraculous, so they can be forgiven for having to retune partway through the piece. The singing is handled by two alternating casts. I saw the “Red Team”: Everett Suttle, Jennifer Moore, Jesse Malgieri, Marie Masters, Anthony Webb, and Aude Cardona. At times they were what “Idol” judges would call “pitchy”, but I can only begin to image the challenges of hearing oneself in those deadening acoustics.
The creative team’s effort to support the intertwined stories has mixed results. The lack of sets — typically an opera staple — allows for clean and clear projection of supertitles produced by Chadwick Creative Arts. Thomas Schall should be applauded for managing to stage a fencing class in a space the size of a Manhattan galley kitchen. Completely baffling, though, are Matsy Stinson’s costumes, which bear a strong resemblance to bedspreads. Presumably for convenience, they are sometimes left in place when shifting from one storyline to the other, which I found confusing.
Whatever its imperfections, at $35 L’amant Anonyme makes for a lively evening and a gentle introduction to what may seem an intimating art form. It is running at 59E59th Street Theater through March 20, 2016. For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=235.