Faust et Hélène & L’heure espagnole
New Camerata Opera, 2022
September 16 brought the opening of New Camerata Opera’s 2022–23 season, with a pleasant, entertaining double bill of French opera from the early twentieth century. The featured works were Faust et Hélène by Lili Boulanger and L’Heure Espagnole by Maurice Ravel. The performances in the Irondale Center marked New Camerata Opera’s first appearances in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood.
One of the tragedies of Western art music was the loss of Lili Boulanger at age twenty-four. Clearly, had she lived a more normal span of years and continued composing, Lili Boulanger would now be regarded as one of the most significant composers of her time. Boulanger was only nineteen when she won the Prix de Rome for Faust et Hélène. Based upon Goethe’s Faust, this one-act opera centers on the moment when Mephistophélès convinces Faust to sell his soul for the opportunity to have an encounter with Helen of Troy. The music is an unusual combination of French impressionism, high romanticism and burgeoning chromaticism. It is very mysterious, passionate and seductive. Tenor Victor Khodadad gave a dramatic performance as Faust, convincingly illustrating his intense ardor for Hélène. Baritone Kyle Oliver depicted Mephistophélès as mysterious and in complete control, yet not without compassion for Faust. Mezzo Tesia Kwarteng presented Hélène as a troubled soul, weary of her fate yet filled with warm sensuality.
In a pronounced shift in tone, Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole made an excellent comedic foil to the Boulanger opera’s erotic, symbolist esotericism. In this light-hearted sex farce, a clockmaker’s young wife attempts to conceal and juggle a group of silly lovers. New Camerata’s production allowed the three singers from the Boulanger to show their versatility by appearing again in primary roles here. Kwarteng captured the coquettish personality of Conceptión, the amorous wife. Khodadad gave a comic portrayal of the pretentious, solipsistic lover Gonsalve, and Oliver offered a winning depiction of Ramiro, the humble yet charismatic muleteer who ultimately captures Conceptión’s affections. Tenor Gabriel Hernandez and baritone Andy Dwan delivered excellent renditions of, respectively, Torquemada, Conceptión’s hapless and peculiar clockmaker husband and Don Iñigo Gomez, an oafish and arrogant banker and would-be suitor.
John de los Santos delivered clear, solid stage direction that emphasized occult decadence in the Boulanger and eccentricity in the Ravel. The staging was enhanced by the subtle stage design of Atom Moore. Both works employed reduced orchestrations. Music director Kamal Khan was good at capturing the singers’ phrasing and the overall musical timing.
On Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, New York’s New Camerata Opera staged a double-bill featuring two French one-act operas, Lili Boulanger’s “Faust et Hélène” and Maurice Ravel’s “L’heure Espagnole.”
The company, known for its fun and immersive productions, brought these relatively obscure works to the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The venue is beautifully decrepit and screams “hip New York art scene.”
The place is quintessential Brooklyn: edgy, a bit off-kilter, and oozing personality. Manhattan can have the glittery Met, Brooklynites prefer their opera up close and frill-free. A nearly full house comprising mostly younger people and the young at heart made that apparent.
Boulanger’s opera focuses not so much on the bargain between Faust and the Devil or the thinly veiled Christian morality within but on Hélèn’s sexual agency and the power she has over men. She is both a woman desired and an agent who desires.
Director John de los Santos skipped any sort of costly sets or costumes, placing sole focus on the singers and the story. At stage right sat an overflowing basket of scrolls. At center was a brown, sensible, medium-size table. A few feet away, at stage left, was a bed with reddish-orange sheets under a light of similar color, and in that bed lay Eva Parr, the mezzo, playing Hélène. Parr got into the bed about fifteen minutes before curtain and “slept” in the orange glow of Hell while the audience chattered, and the orchestra members warmed up. Having Parr on stage prior to the action gave the sense that she had been asleep for a substantial amount of time, à la Hélène’s millennia-long slumber. It was an effective mind trick.
Tenor Chris Carr gave a convincing performance as the pleasure-seeking Faust, though it was not always through his acting (which was more than fine). Carr’s voice was heroic. He’s a solid young Verdi tenor whose razor-sharp tone cut cleanly through the orchestra while his castmates struggled. Some of you might remember the old Maxell cassette tape advertisements with the colloquially known “Blown Away Guy” getting, well, blown away by the music’s clarity and power. Carr’s singing had the same effect. Hold on to your hat should you have the chance to hear him.
Méphistophélès, sung by Markel Reed, was serious but delivered with personality. If you knew nothing of the Faust myth, you might mistake him for a “good guy,” like a friendly satyr with silver horns, but no, he’s Satan, charming and always ready to make a deal too good to be true. An overly menacing portrayal of Méphistophélès wouldn’t fit the character. No one would strike bargains with Méphistophélès if he came at his marks with no personality and a red-hot pitchfork.
There’s much talk about strategies to bring audiences into the opera house, and the solution has tended towards “director’s opera;” make a show outrageous enough, and auditoriums will fill with a new crop of opera buffs. Meanwhile, comedy is overlooked as a means to bring in more people. Mount a farce, do it well, and there’s a solid chance a first-timer will return. Present a 45-minute comedic chamber opera, and the odds increase. Pick a sexy one, and hindquarters will be in seats. Truth be told, as well as New Camerata did with “Faust et Hélène,” Ravel’s sex comedy, “L’heure Espagnole,” takes home the prize.
Ravel and librettist Franc-Nohain’s opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique on May 19, 1911. Outside of France, the opera’s first stop was Covent Garden in 1919. From there, it traveled to Chicago and New York in 1920. Happily, New Camerata brought it back to New York, and a good time was had by all.
The cast of “Faust et Hélène” returned to the stage with Eva Parr as Concepción, Chris Carr as the poet Gonzalve, and Markel Reed as Ramiro, the muleteer. Joining the trio were Gabriel Hernandez as Torquemada and Andy Dwan as the banker Don Iñigo Gomez.
There are two threads that bring “Faust et Hélène” and “L’heure Espagnole” together: time and female sexual agency.
“Faust et Hélène” reverses time. Hélène is awoken thousands of years after her death. And when offered pleasure, she has agency and takes it. Her lovemaking with Faust reminds her of who she was. But time isn’t on Hélène or Faust’s side. It moves too fast. The moment of passion is squelched by incoming ghosts as quickly as it began. Hélène can’t linger and enjoy. Her time is up, as is Faust’s.
Time in “L’heure Espagnole” is in limited supply as well. Both Gonzalve and Don Iñigo squander it and lose their chance at pleasure. Standing before them is a sexually liberated woman, and what do these morons do? They yap away, more enthralled with themselves and the sound of their own voices than Concepción. Neither saw the lowly UPS guy as a rival, though they should have. Concepción will have fun, idiots be damned.
To drive the theme of time in “L’heure,” New Camerata brought on Atom Moore, whose stunning projections of clockworks ran continuously from curtain to curtain. Moore’s projections were stellar in design and put to good use. Opera-goers have a love/hate relationship with projections. Once you’ve seen a few bad use cases, you’re skeptical at best. But the opposite is also true. When you see carefully considered and engaging projections, you’re more open to their use. Moore’s falls into the latter category.
Final verdict on “L’heure”: Excellent.
As for the double-bill as a whole? New Camerata Opera, the cast, and the creatives have reason to be proud of their work.
Theater Scene .net
Maurice Ravel’s delightful L’heure espagnole, usually paired with his other opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, is here paired with Faust et Hélène, an obscure cantata by Lili Boulanger, one of Ravel’s contemporaries. Hearing her exquisite Faust et Hélène is comparable to discovering a diamond you didn’t know you had.
New Camerata Opera opens its seventh season with this very engaging double-bill. Director John de los Santos has envisioned a world where the passage of time is the focus of both of these operas. While the set for the Boulanger is spare, Mr. de los Santos is aided in this concept for the Ravel with projections of striking clockwork photography and a set filled with a collection of stylized grandfather clocks from NYC-based artist Atom Moore. Ashley Soliman’s costumes are timeless for the Boulanger work – the men are shirtless and barefoot in a variation on dhotis or male harem pants while Hélène is in an orange gown with a virtually endless train.
For the Ravel, Soliman’s costumes are contemporary with the mezzo once again in orange, this time silk shorts and a jacket, with the tenor playboy poet in jeans and a shirt open to his waist, missing only the de rigueur gold chains. The muleteer has been updated to a UPS delivery man in shorts while the banker king is in a suit. Torquemada, the clockmaker, is in a classic Spanish linen outfit for a middle-aged man. The lighting design of Joshua Rose seamlessly enhances the subtle mood changes of both scores.
The Boulanger work looks at the moment when Faust is persuaded by Méphistophélès to sign over his soul in return for being shown one moment of true happiness, in this case his moment viewing the beautiful Helen of Troy asleep. Faust demands that Hélène be brought across time, and across the ages, so that he might understand true beauty. Faust is persistent in his desire and forcibly kisses her. She becomes aware that she can feel love and is alive again. Their passion is interrupted by the bloody ghosts of the soldiers who lost their lives for Hélène. Faust loses his new lover in a battle with the ghost of Paris.
The Ravel work is a light comedy of riches. The coquette wife of Torquemada waits for him to leave the house so she can have her assignation with Gonzalve…and gets interrupted by not just her other suitor, a banker-king, but also the customer of her husband, waiting for Torquemada to return home to service his pocket watch.
The performances are stellar throughout. Mezzo Eva Parr is a siren of honeyed and cream tones as Hélène and a flustered sex kitten as Concepción in L’Heure Espagnole. Her performance makes one yearn to hear her take on the roles of Carmen or Charlotte in Werther. Tenor Chris Carr reveals incredible vocal range in the difficult role of Faust, and spot-on comic timing as the seducer poet Gonzalve in the Ravel work. Baritone Markel Reed personifies menace with his silky tones as Méphistophélès and is delightful as the muleteer/UPS man Ramiro. Andy Dwan scores the appropriate buffoonery as the lascivious banker/paramour Don Iñigo Gomez and Gabriel Hernandez is so very charming as the cuckolded clockmaker Torquemada. Music director and conductor Kamal Khan embraces every note of these two scores, especially the passages that pay homage to the vast orchestral sounds of Richard Wagner.
The New Camerata Opera production is an exhilarating realization of the vast music being made available to the intrepid audience outside the borough of Manhattan.
The new opera season started out for me far from Lincoln Center’s madding crowds, in Brooklyn’s Irondale Center, near BAM, with a pair of short pieces by French composers that definitely had their charms.
While Maurice Ravel, composer of the evening’s L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE is the better known, perhaps the more interesting part of the evening was the curtain-raiser, FAUST ET HELENE, by Lili Boulanger. Together they made a slight but fascinating program, which was performed lovingly by the New Camerata Opera, under music director Kamal Khan and director John de los Santos, with lively sets and projections by Atom Moore, lighting by Joshua Rose and costumes by Ashley Soliman.
Boulanger dazzles with her musical story-telling skills in the cantata, under Khan’s baton, and the rich voices (in the Saturday September 17 performance) of mezzo Eva Parr as Helene, baritone Chris Carr as Faust and baritone Markel Reed as Mephistopheles. Mezzo Parr was particularly enchanting, as she proved a second time, as the sex-starved Concepcion in the Ravel.
The opera buffa L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE bears a closer resemblance to musical comedy than the typical opera (even buffa-style) and has a host of charming melodies, lively dances and elements of folk songs, that combine elements of the French and Spanish song in an orgiastic, slapstick farce.
The cast brings out the comic elements with aplomb–even baritone Reed (who was the first half’s devil) as the muleteer, manages to keep a straight-but-delighted face through most of his funny role, along with baritone Carr as Gonsalve, tenor Gabriel Hernandez as the clockmaker and the handy bass-baritone Andy Dwan as Don Inigo Gomez.
It was an altogether enjoyable evening that gave us hope for more to come in the 2022-23 season.