Opera audiences are often handicapped by their own and others’ preconceptions of what they are supposed to like. Twentieth-century French surrealist opera is not high on the list of box-office hits. In the case of the double bill that the Wolf Trap Opera presented Friday night, labels can only have gotten in the way.
The applause at the end of the evening was warmly enthusiastic, and one could have even imagined overtones of relief: the sound of an audience that had expected to hear something challenging and was instead rewarded with a thoroughly diverting evening.
The two operas in question were Darius Milhaud’s “Le pauvre matelot” (“The Poor Sailor”), set to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, and “Les mamelles de Tiresias” (“Tiresias’s Breasts”), Francis Poulenc’s setting of a text by Guillaume Apollinaire.
“Surreal,” in the case of the first piece, describes no more than operatic business as usual; the story is a fable of a fisherman’s wife who waits for her husband for 15 years, despite being ardently wooed by her husband’s friend. Her husband returns, rich; learns of her fidelity; and decides not to reveal himself immediately, instead telling the wife that her husband is returning soon, impoverished; whereupon the wife kills him in order to take his treasure to pay off her husband’s debts. The opera, sensibly, ends before she learns what she has done.
“Tiresias,” the better known of the two works, is a kind of Gallic successor to Brecht and Weill’s “Mahagonny,” presenting a far more good-humored dystopia: Wife loses breasts, grows beard, becomes male and refuses to bear children, whereupon husband dons a dress, decides to procreate, and makes more than 40,000 children in a single afternoon. Husband and wife end up reunited and back in a semblance of their original roles, and the audience is enjoined to make babies. This piece was part of the Metropolitan Opera’s French triptych “Parade,” a production by John Dexter with David Hockney sets that opened in 1981 and was last seen there in 2002. But it pairs well with the less whimsical and darker “Matelot,” much as Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” counterbalances “Il tabarro” in his trilogy “Il trittico.”
“Matelot” is arguably the better singer showcase and was more strongly cast (with three returning singers from last year), though neither Matthew Ozawa’s dark production nor Timothy Myers’s coordination problems in the orchestra pit did the leads many favors. The soprano Tracy Cox, Alice in last year’s “Falstaff,” sang angelically as the wife, but Amanda Seymour’s costume, her flyaway blonde wig and Robert H. Grimes’s murky lighting gave the impression that she was a kind of Miss Havisham, elderly and eccentric, rather than a still-young woman.
Norman Garrett, the Domingo-Cafritz program alum who was such a fine Ford in “Falstaff” here, gave a committed performance as the sailor’s friend, but Ryan Speedo Green, another much-touted rising young singer who made his mark in “Viaggio a Reims” last year, was disappointingly pale as the father-in-law. Robert Watson, the tenor, made ardent sounds in the relatively brief but central title role.
The whole creative team had a lot more fun with “Tiresias,” letting everything hang out including balloon-breasts that soon escaped the wife’s dress and bobbed gently, tethered, above her head until she popped them.
The whole thing is introduced by a stage manager, a la “Pagliacci,” sung with strength and aplomb by Joo Won Kang. Mireille Asselin, last year’s Nanetta in “Falstaff,” was slightly shrill and uneven, though dramatically convincing as the wife; Tobias Greenhalgh was sturdier as the husband, who is first wooed by a gendarme (Kang again), then produces his prodigious brood of babies (large cardboard cutouts) and is interviewed by a journalist about the cost of supporting them (they will, he argues, support him).
The staging involved plastic flamingos, zany costumes and engagement from the whole company; it wasn’t exactly innovative, but it was perfectly good fun.
The production repeats 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Barns at Wolf Trap.