An existential statement?
An expression of ultimate philosophical disgust?
Or perhaps a symptom of gastrointestinal problems?
This curiously complex sound may be any of the above, but now it is the leitmotif of a new comic opera based on a very old play, the medieval French farce "Maistre Pierre Pathelin." Martin Mangold, who directs the opera program at the University of Maryland, has taken a 500-year-old joke, spruced it up into a modern libretto, written some sparkling melodies and made a very funny one-act opera titled "BLEAH!"
In "Pathelin," a defendant in court is told by his lawyer to bleat like a sheep whenever he is asked a question. The plan works and the case is thrown out on the grounds that the defendant is incompetent to stand trial. A funny final twist is given to the story when the lawyer tries to collect his fee and the client simply bleats at him.
In Mangold's musical modernization, "BLEAH!" (with the "EA" pronounced as in "head") is a 1980s equivalent of Pathelin's sheep noises. "BLEAH!" has somewhat less substance than Mangold's previous opera, "Huckleberry Finn," but it took him only six months of work compared with six years for the previous opus. Mangold is obviously developing ease in his craft.
He livens the story with some new twists. For example, the lawyer and the judge are both women, which gives the plot a modern tone and the music a better blend of voices. There is some very clever ensemble writing, and the instruments occasionally make pointed, witty comments on the words.
There is also bright dialogue. When the lawyer is told she should "serve Justice," she replies, "Yes, sir, but only when Justice serves me." A philosophical conclusion knots up and justifies the rather chaotic finale: "A few things make sense, but others simply end."
Besides his own neo-romantic melodies, Mangold uses some judicious, thematically apt quotes from other operas, ranging from "Don Giovanni" to "Gianni Schicchi." The plaintiff addresses the defendant with "Mr. Parker!" in the tones of the Commendatore's statue singing "Don Giovanni" as he comes to drag the villain below. References to "Gianni Schicchi" are especially apt, because "BLEAH!" could easily provide one bright answer to a perennial question: how to fill out a double feature with Puccini's one-act medieval comedy.
Conducted and directed by Mangold, "BLEAH!" had its first performance yesterday afternoon in a student production in the university's Tawes Recital Hall. Nobody can say when it will be heard again. Conditions in mid-1980s America are not very favorable to new operas, but "BLEAH!" deserves to flourish.
It was very cleverly staged within the limited resources of the recital hall, and all the performers were theatrically excellent. The audience laughed loudly and frequently, a rare event in opera houses and unheard-of when the opera is contemporary. The best singing in the generally fine cast was done by Timothy Sarris as the Plaintiff and Stephen Keese as the Defendant.
The concert opened with William Hudson conducting the University of Maryland Symphony in fine performances of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony and Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto. Pianist Gary Stegall soloed powerfully and sensitively in the Beethoven. There are quite a few American cities that do not have an orchestra as good as the University of Maryland's and quite a few respected orchestras that do not have as good a horn section.