Aristophanes gets a coat of high camp in this postmodern operatic version of Greek comedy classic “Lysistrata.” Composer-librettist Mark Adamo began work on the project in 1999, unaware of the renewed immediacy it would attain by the time it reached the stage. World-premiered last year at Houston Grand Opera, this impressive shared production almost pulls off the trick of balancing farce with the weighty moral and spiritual issues at its core.
Adamo has already made a big splash in the opera world with his “Little Women,” which has received more than 20 productions in the U.S. alone and aired on PBS. He posed a bigger, broader challenge to himself with this ambitious work, and he’s up to the task.
Purists may bristle at the grab-bag structure of the score, a compendium of accessible mid-20th century styles with echoes of Anton Webern, George Gershwin, Darius Milhaud and Bernard Herrmann as well as jazz, Latin-American and Broadway elements. Adamo synthesizes these effectively, however, developing his themes and playing them off against each other in an ironic manner.
His amusing, slang-strewn libretto uses the Aristophanes original only as a point of departure.
Once again, the women of Athens and Sparta unite in a sex strike against their warring husbands in order to force the hand of peace, but Adamo has invented several new male characters with whom the women can lock horns.
Both sexes are heavily satirized, but they are made to carry weightier idealistic themes as the second of the two acts progresses, leading to a diffuse conclusion that does not quite deliver the intended emotional payoff. The last half-hour in particular is bogged down by some unearned, preachy dramatics.
Yet the overall journey is an enjoyable one, delivering more genuine laughs than just about any comic opera since “Gianni Schicchi.”
Director Michael Kahn wisely capitalizes on that farcical impetus, which is found more in the opera’s playful libretto than its essentially serious-sounding score. He has the help of designer Derek McLane’s ingenious unit set, which consists mostly of a center-stage turntable dominated by a Greek portico that, when rotated, reveals different interior settings, including the Temple of Athens and Lysistrata’s boudoir.
Murrell Horton’s lushly amusing costume designs include fantasies of traditional ancient-Greek garb with the occasional well-chosen anachronism — such as the businesslike pantsuit donned by Lysistrata once she decides to swear off sex. Also memorable are the tumescent protrusions underneath the tunics of the sex-starved male warriors in act two.
Mark Doubleday’s lighting beautifully evokes moonlight but also mirrors the mood of dark romantic frustrations.
There are few weak links in the cast, several of whom created their roles in last year’s Houston staging.
Emily Pulley brings a voluptuous voice and figure to the title role and plays her comic moments with great flair and timing. As the hectoring, humorless Kleonike, contralto Myrna Paris makes a strong impression, yet the role as conceived does not tap enough of this singing actress’s rare comedic gifts.
Zaftig mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, done up to look like the 1950s Slavic diva Zinka Milanov, is wonderfully funny as Lampito, leader of the Spartan women, while mezzo Jennifer Rivera does not seem altogether comfortable in the role of Myrrhine, which taxes her upper range.
Among the men, tenor Chad Shelton is a standout as Lysistrata’s lover Nico, unfurling a charismatic, penetrating voice that evokes a wide range of colors and shading. On opening night, baritone James Bobick as Myrrhine’s suitor Kinesias sounded underpowered and off-pitch during act one, but he improved noticeably in act two. What he lacked in vocal thrust, he made up for in musculature during a shirtless seduction scene. Baritone Stephen Kechulius sang serviceably as Lampito’s husband, Leonidas; his portrayal is one of rather generalized macho ire and frustration.
Nearly every cast member sings with such clear diction that the surtitles are rendered almost superfluous, although the State Theater’s subtle amplification system probably can claim some of the credit.
New York City Opera regular George Manahan conducts ably, drawing especially vivid work from the percussion section.
Next stop for the production is Opera Columbus, where it will open the 2008-09 season.