Basing an opera on 1950s self-help sex manuals is one of those provocative ideas designed to get people’s attention. But if you’re going to do it, you have to deliver. And “Positions 1956,” which had its world premiere at Arlington’s Artisphere on Friday night, turned out to be a first draft: a piece with some fun ideas that hasn’t yet fully gelled.
Still, with this production — which launched the second festival season of the contemporary opera company Urban Arias and another presentation by the redoubtable Opera Lafayette — it was a good weekend for small opera in Washington. Both Opera Lafayette and Urban Arias are homegrown startups born of one man’s vision, with very specific focuses: contemporary opera for Urban Arias, the French baroque for Opera Lafayette. Both offer an alternative to conventional grand opera, and a resulting freedom. At its best, small opera reminds audiences that this form can be fun, irreverent, thought-provoking, light-hearted; whereas even comedies at a large opera company can grow a little ponderous. When you’ve spent $1.2 million on a production, there’s a lot riding on every laugh.
The creators of “Positions 1956,” however, may have gone a little too far in the direction of insouciance. “With only three singers and a minuscule orchestra,” Michael Korie, the opera’s Tony-nominated (“Grey Gardens”) librettist, wrote in the program notes, “if things go disastrously wrong as they are wont to do with most original new operas, it won’t exactly be the end of the world, will it?” Well, no, but one could perhaps wish for a little more commitment, particularly since the librettist’s contribution was part of the reason the work — depicting a newlywed couple in 1956 trying to navigate first their sex lives, then body-building, then dance lessons, with the guidance of self-help books — seemed so undigested.
Conrad Cummings obviously had a lot of fun writing the music. He drew on the rhetoric of Handelian oratorio in the sex section to give a faux decorum to Korie’s arch couplets (“Women vary as to foreplay: Some like less play, some like more play”), and adapted to the various dance styles of the Arthur Murray episode, from an un-cha-cha-like but lovely cha-cha to the Viennese waltz.
But the opera didn’t go beyond surface cliches: a series of “Mad Men”-flavored sendups. And by failing to develop the characters — the newlywed couple (Amedee Moore and Jesse Blumberg), and Vale Rideout in the double role of the gym trainer and the dance instructor — it ended up reinforcing the stereotypes at which it sought to poke fun. The young wife became a baby-tending caricature, while the young husband responded to and then brutally repelled the homoerotic overtones of the gym, leaving the sensitive gay macho gym trainer as the most developed (in many senses) figure. Even with the good singing (some of it even executed while doing pushups — kudos to Blumberg), it felt like a long 90 minutes.
It didn’t help that the production values of Urban Arias aren’t yet up to the scale of its ambition. You could excuse the numerous problems with set changes as opening-night nerves, but the indifferent level of performance from the four-piece orchestra under the company’s founder, Robert Wood, was harder to overlook. And the amplification, stipulated by the creators, seemed superfluous and annoying in the black box’s small space. It’s nice to have a company like this in Washington, though, and one hopes it will take advantage of the room this production left for improvement.
Opera Lafayette’s “Barbiere di Siviglia” on Saturday was a contrast in every regard except length and, possibly, unfamiliarity: This was not the well-known version of the opera by Rossini, but one written by Giovanni Paisiello 32 years earlier. Paisiello’s “Barber” anticipates Rossini’s in many ways, with sprightly tunes, lots of duets and ensembles and a closely parallel plot. Paisiello’s opera, like Rossini’s, has a “La calunnia” aria for Don Basilio; it has the count masquerade first as a military officer and then as a music teacher singing “Pace, gioia” in an assumed falsetto; and it even has a storm scene, which the director, Nick Olcott, mimed just as you’ve seen it done so often in productions of the Rossini opera, by having the actors cross the stage struggling with open umbrellas.
Opera Lafayette is riding high this season. As a far more established cousin to Urban Arias, with 17 years of experience under its belt, it’s been able to work out the kinks and start to prove itself on a bigger stage. It’s made an impressive series of CDs of little-known Baroque operas, and this year made its international debut in Versailles with Monsigny’s “Le roi et le fermier,” the kind of little-known rediscovery for which it’s become known. The audience Saturday night exuded the upbeat energy of people who were having fun. (The final performance was Sunday afternoon.)
And Opera Lafayette gave them plenty of reason to enjoy themselves; the curiosity factor alone was enough to sustain interest. Olcott wove the action through the onstage orchestra, while Ryan Brown, the group’s founder and conductor, led from the floor of the auditorium, looking up at the players with his scores resting on the edge of the stage. The orchestra sounded fine, and the singers were quite good and deserved extra praise for not falling, more than necessary, into the pitfall of stereotype, with the possible exception of Robert Baker’s energetic Almaviva. Jennifer Casey Cabot set the tone in her company debut as a mellow-voiced Rosina with dusky tinges to her soprano; Eugene Galvin was an exasperated yet authoritative Bartolo, Peter Becker a bureaucratic Basilio and James Shaffran a metallic-voiced Figaro, a role a good deal smaller than Rossini made it. By its 17th year, Urban Arias may be just as assured and capable as Opera Lafayette is.
“Positions 1956” continues through April 22, alternating with Urban Arias’ other program this season, a double bill of Thomas Pasatieri’s “Before Breakfast” and Peter Hilliard’s “The Filthy Habit.” For information, go to www.urbanarias.org.