Music review: American Opera Theater's resigned 'Gonzales Cantata'

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 6:34 PM

Opera about politics is not necessarily political opera: Rather than creating a protest, some of these productions veil their criticism behind a swathe of gentility.

This is true of John Adams's "Nixon in China," which aired in a high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera this weekend, and which turns Dick and Pat Nixon into well-meaning American Everymen caught up in world events beyond their understanding. It is equally true of "The Gonzales Cantata," which American Opera Theater staged at the Baltimore Theatre Project, in a collaboration with the Peabody conservatory and Handel Choir of Baltimore, over the past two weekends. This piece turns the figure of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales into a sacrificial lamb.

It's not quite clear what composer Melissa Dunphy intended when she set to music transcripts from the 2007 congressional hearings on the dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys. Clever, certainly, was her idea of turning to a Handelian style, using 18th-century musical conventions to send up the 18th-century conventions and forms of American political protocol (though her tick of pausing the music on pregnant dissonances, like an audible nudge to the ribs, got a bit old). She further subverted the male-dominated political arena by having all the male characters played by women - which also makes the piece a practical choice for music schools, where female voices tend to dominate. (Gonzales was sung by Molly Young, who had a beautiful little cream puff of a voice, lovely but too yielding; it has a lot of promise if she learns to support it better.)

So the setup was fine, and director Timothy Nelson, AOT's founder, opened with appropriately slapstick touches. After the senators have entered in single file, the last one rushes in late and bumps into the one in front of him, setting off a domino effect. They proceeded to hold forth and gesticulate like characters in a Gilbert & Sullivan light opera.

But the piece seemed to have no idea where it wanted to go. Dunphy got so caught up in questions of form that she neglected the content. A congressional hearing represents, by its nature, a group against an individual, and this became the major message of the piece, with Gonzales as a variant on the holy fool, victimized by the crowd. The point was murky - American politics are bad for individuals? Gonzales was unfairly persecuted? Groups gang up on people weaker than themselves? - and could have been made equally well about any congressional hearing. You could swap in the baseball players who testified on steroid use with equal effect.

In a program note, Nelson asserted that the piece's strength is that it isn't really about Gonzales. But this leaves us with no message at all. Performed as a cantata, this piece may be an amusing diversion; staged as an opera, it reveals its dramatic deficiencies and loses some of its zany humor.

Far more successful, even as political theater, was Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas," presented as the second half of the double bill. Without imposing an explicit contemporary story line on a 300-year-old opera, it seamlessly moved the piece forward in time, portraying Dido as a neurotic woman torn apart by her own anxieties in a vaguely 1940s setting. (Emily Noel was a human, moving Dido.)

The production was Nelson's first when he started American Opera Theater seven years ago, and there was good reason to bring it back in the company's final season: It showed you don't need a big budget or resources, or professional singers, to create theater that speaks strongly to a modern audience.

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