Lee Hoiby's "Something New for the Zoo" has animal passion, uproarious comedy, nine or 10 gorgeous, hummable melodies, magic potions, a diva, a Soviet general and a singing gorilla. The Prince George's Civic Opera production of the new one-act opera this weekend at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly was an unqualified success. But was it art?
Any work that opens with a manservant hamming "A pig in the parlor!" carries the burden of proof. Happily, this operatic monkey business provokes and stimulates the gray matter. If art is the communication of ideas through the prickling of the senses, then the answer is undeniably yes.
Milagros Williams plays Erma Leintraub, a Viennese diva circa 1950 who discovers she can transform men into animals with the help of an elixir. Her unwitting victims are the commanders of the occupying Soviet forces, who have smothered Vienna under the cloak of bureaucracy and dogmatism.
She orders her manservant, Heinrich, to prepare for a visit by Gen. Vorchielieff, previously invited for tea. Her plan, revealed to her maid Bettina, is to change the loathsome general into an orangutan. She provides occupiers with creature comforts, then provides the Vienna zoo with creatures.
Vorchielieff arrives, cigar in mouth, champagne in hand and bedding Erma in mind. Erma discreetly slips him the mickey, a concoction that makes one feel like the morning after the night before, completing her cagey deed.
Poor overworked Heinrich later decides he needs a stiff drink, and accidentally imbibes some of the leftover potion. Erma, Bettina and Heinrich lament his newfound status of live-in gorilla friend in a masterly written trio of bittersweet pathos.
Williams is brilliant; her powerful, controlled voice dominates, whether singing arias or sparkling duets and trios with Ann Barzola and Jonathan Day, playing her maid and manservant. Richard Hobson as Gen. Vorchielieff is perfectly cast as Williams' foil. Duo pianists James Holloway and director Carol Palca provide able, unobtrusive accompaniment.
This work is currently undergoing revision for full orchestration. Its clearly stated libretto, allowing for distinct intonation, and its meshed, exacting harmonies, plus the "extractable" sections from the charming score guarantee its future success.