Thursday, August 09, 2018

Mata Hari at West Edge Opera

The wandering East Bay opera company, West Edge Opera, has created another pop-up theater at the Craneway Conference Center on the Richmond waterfront for their annual summer festival.

The huge building does not have the ruined glamor of the abandoned Oakland train station which was headquarters for a couple of years, but it does have bathrooms rather than port-a-potties, and beautiful light-filled views from the hangar that serves as a lobby.

The theater itself has been created within a wide, black-curtained rectangle surrounding an elevated stage with an orchestra at audience level.

Last Sunday was the West Coast premiere of the 2017 Mata Hari, written and directed by Paul Peers with a score by Matt Marks. I was looking forward to it immensely, curious about Marks' music which was described in reviews of its New York Prototype Festival premiere last year as wildly eclectic. The other reason was because I recently saw Mare Nostrum at the SF Silent Film Festival whose heroine was loosely based on the World War One femme fatale spy, and did some research on her afterwards. What a rich, ripe subject she would be for a feminist examination. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was an abused young Dutch wife who fled her husband in the Dutch Indies at the beginning of the 20th century. Performing under the stage name of Mata Hari, she posed as an exotic danseur from the Far East throughout the capitals of Europe. She was also mistress to legions of male admirers, and during World War One was pressured into spying on the French for the Germans so she could reunite with her young Russian aviator lover who had been shot down and was blind in a hospital. Eventually, she was set up by the Germans for exposure and then executed by a French firing squad. (All production photos by Cory Weaver, the rest are mine and yours).

It is sad to report what a dull play Paul Peers has made of all that lively material, framing the story as Mata Hari stripped down to a slip in a jail cell and reliving episodes from her past while being tended to by her jailer, Sister Leonide. The role of Mata Hari was written for a non-singing actress who could nonetheless work with musical cues, and the Australian actress Tina Mitchell for whom it was written does fine in that regard, but she seemed wrong for the role, more whiny victim than sensual conquerer. Her Dance of the Seven Veils for Sister Leonide which should have been a high point of the opera went by without a ripple. It also didn't help that the supertitles were used for all the singers' lines but not for Ms. Mitchell's, so a question would be comprehensible when sung, but an answer when spoken would not. Molly Mahoney did her best with the only female singing role as the Sister, whose character arc transforms unconvincingly from Nurse Ratched to Sister Helen Prejean in the course of 80 minutes.

It was too bad because there was a lot of talent involved in the show, starting with Marks' music, which was indeed eclectic, veering from Kurt Weillish tunes to modern operatic recitatives to pop, falsetto crooning, all accompanied by a crack little band of violin (Dan Flanagan), piano (Kate Campbell), accordion (Douglas Morton), and electric guitar (John Imholz). The singers were all wonderful too, but they were sabotaged by atrocious sound amplification last Sunday afternoon that involved feedback, ghost effects, and volume that was way too bright for the small space. Nevertheless, it was good hearing baritones Daniel Cilli and Nikolas Nackley again, who were joined by Michael Grammer and Daniel Yoder as a succession of confusing, undercharacterized military men who make our heroine suffer.

The only singer who knew how to work with the dodgy amplification was Jean-Paul Jones (in bed above) who sang the pop crooner arias, softly and beautifully, playing the Russian lover Vadime and the ghost of Mata Hari's son Norman.

The West Edge Opera Festival extends over the next two weekends, and the other works are Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, which has been getting mostly great reviews and Francesconi's Quartett, where the backstage word-of-mouth before its Saturday opening has been "Wow," whatever that means.

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