New Camerata Opera 2022 Review: Faust et Hélène & L’heure Espagnole
Ravel’s Comedy Shines With Star Performances from Eva Parr & Chris CarrBy Chris Ruel
Photo credit: James Elliott
On Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, New York’s New Camerata Opera staged a double-bill featuring two French one-act operas, Lili Boulanger’s “Faust et Hélène” and Maurice Ravel’s “L’heure Espagnole.”
The company, known for its fun and immersive productions, brought these relatively obscure works to the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The venue is beautifully decrepit and screams “hip New York art scene.”
The place is quintessential Brooklyn: edgy, a bit off-kilter, and oozing personality. Manhattan can have the glittery Met, Brooklynites prefer their opera up close and frill-free. A nearly full house comprising mostly younger people and the young at heart made that apparent. For the productions, New Camerata uses two casts. This review is of Cast B’s performance. The double-bill has two final performances on Sept. 26 and 27., providing a second round for both casts.
Lili Boulanger’s “Faust et Hélène”: Soul-Selling Never Gets Old.
Faust and his deal-making with the Devil have been fodder upon which composers and librettists have feasted, creating operatic iterations either directly from Goethe’s poem or pieces of the myth, both ancient and modern.
The story of Faust first appeared in modern form in 1587, when Johann Spies compiled the “Historia von D. Johann Fausten.” A year later, Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright Christopher Marlowe began his “Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus.” It was Goethe’s extended poem, however, that opened the artistic floodgates. Between 1814 and the later 20th century, no less than 30 versions of the story landed on the opera stage.
Lili Boulanger and Eugène Adenis’ one-act opera “Faust et Hélène” was one of these and the opera presents a thin slice of Helen of Troy’s story from Goethe’s “Faust.” The opera premiered on July 5, 1913, at the Institute de France in Paris. For her work, Boulanger was awarded the Prix de Rome, becoming the first female to win the prize.
Boulanger’s opera focuses not so much on the bargain between Faust and the Devil or the thinly veiled Christian morality within but on Hélèn’s sexual agency and the power she has over men. She is both a woman desired and an agent who desires.
Here’s the quick synopsis. Faust dreams of Helen of Troy and wants to have a few moments of pleasure with the legendary beauty. He strikes a deal with Méphistophélès: In return for fetching Helen from the underworld for a good romp, the Devil gets Faust’s soul. At first, the revived Helen rebuffs Faust’s overtures, but after a kiss, she feels truly alive and ready for some pleasure. The two have a passionate liaison but can’t revel in the afterglow. Ghosts of soldiers killed in the Trojan War appear, announcing Helen’s time to return to Hell, but Faust refuses to let her go and is struck down by the sword of Paris. End of opera.
A Wall of Sound
The show calls for three voices: a mezzo-soprano for Hélène; a tenor in the role of Faust, and a baritone as Méphistophélès. There’s no chorus and only a handful of supernumeraries who play the ghosts. That’s it.
Director John de los Santos skipped any sort of costly sets or costumes, placing sole focus on the singers and the story. At stage right sat an overflowing basket of scrolls. At center was a brown, sensible, medium-size table. A few feet away, at stage left, was a bed with reddish-orange sheets under a light of similar color, and in that bed lay Eva Parr, the mezzo, playing Hélène. Parr got into the bed about fifteen minutes before curtain and “slept” in the Halloween-orange glow of Hell while the audience chattered, and the orchestra members warmed up.
Whether done for practical or artistic reasons, having Parr on stage prior to the action gave the sense that she had been asleep for a substantial amount of time, à la Hélène’s millennia-long slumber. It was an effective mind trick.
The evening’s conductor was New Camerata’s Music Director Kamal Khan, who led an orchestra of 17 players. Khan had a solid outing, and his band captured Boulanger’s Romantic score well, though the dynamics and acoustics were tricky to navigate. Here’s why. The orchestra faced the far-right wall (stage left), slamming their sound into the plaster, which shot it back right toward the singers. Parr’s rich voice was noticeably affected at the start of the show because Hélène’s bed was positioned close to the orchestra. Unfortunately, her lines were caught up in the ricochetting music, wiping out diction and muddying her phrasing. All but one vocalist struggled with the same issue when singing stage left.
The venue dealt the orchestra a bad hand, so New Camerata went with the best solution. The strange positioning provided Khan with a direct line of sight to the singers and vice versa, obviously important. While there were other options, none were optimal. The stage was too small to put the orchestra out front and had they been placed there, the audience wouldn’t have heard much singing at all. Sticking the orchestra behind the vocalists would’ve caused a space problem while seating the orchestra stage right was no better than stage left because they’d still be playing toward a wall. If Khan is to be faulted, it’s for not compensating sufficiently for the wall’s effect.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Tenor Chris Carr gave a convincing performance as the pleasure-seeking Faust, though it was not always through his acting (which was more than fine). Carr’s voice was heroic. He’s a solid young Verdi tenor whose razor-sharp tone cut cleanly through the orchestra while his castmates struggled. Some of you might remember the old Maxell cassette tape advertisements with the colloquially known “Blown Away Guy” getting, well, blown away by the music’s clarity and power. Carr’s singing had the same effect. Hold on to your hat should you have the chance to hear him.
Méphistophélès, sung by Markel Reed, couldn’t match Carr’s power, so the Faust/Méphistophélès interactions were lopsided, as were those between Faust and Hélène. Reed’s baritone was serious but delivered with personality. If you knew nothing of the Faust myth, you might mistake him for a “good guy,” like a friendly satyr with silver horns, but no, he’s Satan, charming and always ready to make a deal too good to be true. An overly menacing portrayal of Méphistophélès wouldn’t fit the character. No one would strike bargains with Méphistophélès if he came at his marks with no personality and a red-hot pitchfork.
Besides the acoustical issues, mezzo Eva Parr worked with a tessitura that sat on the low end of the range, and that didn’t help her projection. Contrast this with her performance in the second opera of the double-bill, Ravel’s “L’heure Espagnole,” in which she starred and crushed it as the randy Concepción. In that role, Parr spent most of her time at center or stage right and could be heard just fine. Carr could sing from the street and still knock you over like pins struck by a musical bowling ball.
Final verdict on “Faust et Hélène:” Very good. However, either the orchestra needs to bring it down a notch because of the acoustics, or the vocalists need to be mindful of the dangers of singing too far stage left.
Tragedy is Overrated: Ravel’s “L’heure Espagnole”
Stabbings, poisonings, firing squads, tuberculosis, and other means of dying are so common in the standard repertoire, a vocal coach needs to prepare their students to sing in a myriad of physical positions as they “die.” It’s a joke at this point. So, why all the death and sadness when opera is far from devoid of comedies? Are operas that have the audience and not the dying heroine rolling on the floor too low-brow?
There’s much talk about strategies to bring audiences into the opera house, and the solution has tended towards “director’s opera;” make a show outrageous enough, and auditoriums will fill with a new crop of opera buffs.
Sometimes that strategy works, sometimes not, so the industry spins and wrings it hands. Meanwhile, comedy is overlooked as a means to bring in more people. Mount a farce, do it well, and there’s a solid chance a first-timer will return. Present a 45-minute comedic chamber opera, and the odds increase. Pick a sexy one, and hindquarters will be in seats. Speaking of hindquarters … we’ll get to that.
Truth be told, as well as New Camerata did with “Faust et Hélène,” Ravel’s sex comedy, “L’heure Espagnole,” takes home the prize.
Ravel and librettist Franc-Nohain’s opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique on May 19, 1911. The opera had its initial run of nine performances, and that was it. The opera closed and wasn’t revived until 34 years later. However, in December 1921, ten years after its limp first showing, the show was presented by the Paris Opéra. From there, it gained momentum, and in 1945, it returned to Opéra-Comique, and this time stayed in its repertoire.
Outside of France, the opera’s first stop was Covent Garden in 1919. From there, it traveled to Chicago and New York in 1920, Brussels in 1921, Basel and Rotterdam in 1923, Prague in 1924, Hamburg and Stockholm in 1925, Buenos Aires in 1932, Cairo in 1934, and Canada in 1961. Not too shabby.
Happily, New Camerata brought it back to New York, and a good time was had by all.
The Original Tick-Tock
The opera’s narrative is as follows.
Concepción, the knockout wife of the clockmaker Torquemada, enjoys sex. Unfortunately, Torquemada prefers clocks, so Concepción takes a lover … or two or three, while her husband fiddles with cuckoo birds and pendulums. One day, Torquemada must spend an hour away from home, and soon, her lovers come knocking. As they arrive, Concepción must stuff them into clocks to keep them hidden from each other and her husband. But there’s another person Concepción must keep in the dark, an overly helpful muleteer who just won’t leave after Torquemada fixed his watch. Thinking she’s found the perfect way to bring the men into her bedroom, she has the muleteer carry the clocks upstairs, but at different times. No matter what, there’s always a clock downstairs with a lover inside.
Meanwhile, Concepción is checking out the buff muleteer, desiring him more and more. Of course, Torquemada returns just as the lovers escape their ticking hideaways, and to cover themselves, they pose as customers, forcing each to purchase a clock. As for the muleteer, well, he’s just dandy, having gained Concepción’s “affection.”
Compared to the three roles in “Faust et Hélène,” “L’heure Espagnole” has a larger cast of five, comprising two tenors, a mezzo-soprano, a baritone, and a bass.
The cast of “Faust et Hélène” returned to the stage with Eva Parr as Concepción, Chris Carr as the poet Gonzalve, and Markel Reed as Ramiro, the muleteer. Joining the trio were Gabriel Hernandez as Torquemada and Andy Dwan as the banker Don Iñigo Gomez.
The sound issues present in “Faust et Hélène” changed significantly for the better, which, if they hadn’t, the experience would have been ruined. Ravel’s vocal lines are more spoken than sung—with the exception being Gonzalve, the young poet.
Carr fit the role of Gonzalve well. As a singer, he handled a gamut of Spanish musical styles: malagueñas, jotas, and habaneras. His singing has already been called out in this review as excellent, and in “L’heure,” he got to show off his comedic acting chops. Dressed as a swinging poet from the 70s, he got the audience laughing with his sense of timing and expressions. Remember the earlier mention of rear ends? The audience got a good look at Carr’s when he dropped his trousers, ready for some fun with Concepción. (The program warned of partial nudity, but not what part in “partial.”) Carr has it all: a stellar voice, excellent acting, and a … commitment to his craft.
In the lead role of Concepción, Parr shined as well. Like Carr, she showed versatility. The audience got to hear more of her voice, and she was darn funny as her character grew increasingly frazzled. She could vamp it up with her lovers one moment and be shuffling them off into a clock the next. Concepción’s interactions with the muleteer progressed from annoyed to enamored to straight-up lust as she watched him carry the extra-heavy clocks to her bedroom and back. It’s hard to compare Hélène to Concepción. The former enjoyed pleasure but also felt the weight of her past, while the latter didn’t carry any baggage and thoroughly embraced her libertine ways.
Gabriel Hernandez is a wonderful tenor, but in his role in “L’heure,” he could not show it off. Torquemada has little stage time. You see him at the start and at the end, both times making the audience laugh because they know what’s going on behind his back. He’s a dolt who loves his clocks and hasn’t a clue his wife unabashedly cuckolds him.
The banker Don Iñigo Gomez, played by Andy Dwan, was a bit of a mystery. There was trouble discerning what Don Iñigo’s deal was. Was he drunk or just slovenly? He walked around with his shirt untucked, his tie askew, and his pants unzipped. The zipper may have been down in anticipation of his liaison with Concepción, but it seemed more sloppy than preparatory. In the end, the safest bet regarding Don Iñigo in this production was that he was an obnoxious Wall-Streeter who made his way to Concepción’s house for a little action after a bit of drinking. Yuck. You feel dirty just looking at him. If that was the point, Dwan succeeded in every aspect, drawing the most laughs when his character got stuck inside the clock at the worst possible time.
And finally, we come to Ramiro, the brawny muleteer played by Markel Reed. Since mule drivers are not a common sight these days, director De los Santos contemporized the character and made him Ramiro, the UPS guy. The idea is a wink and a nod to the ludicrous plots of adult films. Libidinous wife. Hunky UPS guy. Come on. It was a slow pitch down the middle and quite amusing, especially since Ramiro was utterly naïve and slow in catching on to Concepción’s desire. But after that’s made plain, the next time we see Ramiro, he has a gleam in his eye, a spring in his step, and an untidy uniform.
The trio’s roles were well-suited, and they gelled as performers to deliver a UPS truck full of laughs.
The Connecting Threads
There are two threads that bring “Faust et Hélène” and “L’heure Espagnole” together: time and female sexual agency.
“Faust et Hélène” reverses time. Hélène is awoken thousands of years after her death. And when offered pleasure, she has agency and takes it. Her love-making with Faust reminds her of who she was. But time isn’t on Hélène or Faust’s side. It moves too fast. The moment of passion is squelched by incoming ghosts as quickly as it began. Hélène can’t linger and enjoy. Her time is up, as is Faust’s.
Time in “L’heure Espagnole” is in limited supply as well. Both Gonzalve and Don Iñigo squander it and lose their chance at pleasure. Standing before them is a sexually liberated woman, and what do these morons do? They yap away, more enthralled with themselves and the sound of their own voices than Concepción. Neither saw the lowly UPS guy as a rival, though they should have. Concepción will have fun, idiots be damned.
To drive the theme of time in “L’heure,” New Camerata brought on Atom Moore, whose stunning projections of clockworks ran continuously from curtain to curtain. Moore’s projections were stellar in design and put to good use. Opera-goers have a love/hate relationship with projections. Once you’ve seen a few bad use cases, you’re skeptical at best. But the opposite is also true. When you see carefully considered and engaging projections, you’re more open to their use. Moore’s falls into the latter category.
Final verdict on “L’heure”: Excellent.
As for the double-bill as a whole? New Camerata Opera, the cast, and the creatives have reason to be proud of their work.