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An Hour of Infinite Joy

New York
El Teatro at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street
12/06/2014 -  & December 7, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 2014
Xavier Montsalvatge: El Gato con Botas
Ginger Costa-Jackson/Karin Mushegain (Cat), Andrea Carroll (Princess), Craig Verm (Miller), Kevin Burdette (Ogre), Stefanos Koroneos (King)
Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra, Neal Goren/Geoff MacDonald (Conductors)
Moisés Kaufman (Stage Director), Mark Down (Puppet Director), Nick Barnes (Puppet Designer), Andromache Chalfant (Set Designer), Clint Ramos (Costume Designer), David Lander (Lighting Designer), Sean Curran (Choreographer), Stefano Brancato, Jonothon Lyons, Aaron Schroeder, Joseph Gallina, Ben Liebert, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Jessica Scott, Theodore Yudain (Puppeteers)
A Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Project Production, with El Museo del Barrio/Works & Process at the Guggenheim in Association with Blind Summit Theater

S. Koroneos, A. Caroll, “Cat”, C. Verm, K. Mushegain
(© Richard Termine)

While this week’s Denk/Stucky opera The Classical Style radiated with words, character, intelligence, and dramatic imagination, the first performance of Gotham Chamber Opera’s Puss in Boots yesterday equally dazzled with illusion, backgrounds, costumes, and puppeteering legerdemain. And its magical spell embraced adults, kids, the curious and the surprisingly spellbound.

Put me in the last category. Neal Goren’s Gotham Chamber Opera has given us visionary opera for the past 14 years, but this opera, with music by the virtually unknown (in America) great Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge, simply transcended anything I’ve seen from this group.

Even before the curtain rose, the theater itself in the Barrio Museum was enchanting enough, with its vast original murals of fairy-tales from Cinderella to Sleeping Beauty. Once the music started and the mangy cat of Charles Perrault’s four-hundred-year-old fairy tale showed himself with his Puppet-Masters and his singer, Karen Mushegain, that magic began. With fear (would Puss’s impoverished master eat him? Turn his skin into a hat?) and hope (so long as Puss was outfitted with sword, a cape and of course boots to help the poor Miller, played by the entirely human tenor, Craig Verm.)

After aforesaid outfit was suitable procured...er, stolen, the opera continued with Royalty (King and Princess), Evil (a bibulous Ogre) and rabbits.

Now, granted, this show had the benefits of beautiful sets, lovely singing, and above all, the most surprising puppeteering I’ve ever seen. But above all, it had music that was exciting, sometimes emotionally moving, and even unusual.

Xavier Montsalvatge is famed in his own native Catalonia, and his other music I heard on YouTube has a color and harmonic texture close to Béla Bartók. It does not have quite the genius of that other Spanish puppet-opera, Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show, but it has a constant vivacity and liveliness.

A few moments were special. A quartet in the second part of the opera had the complexity of Verdi, and a song by the drunken Ogre was about the joys of drunkenness, with music that was dark, mysterious and funny at one time. In fact, Manuel DeFalla never quite had that same sense of mordant humor, which was sung with equally horrible joy by Kevin Burdette.

Yet it was the movement of Puss in Boots which was most satisfying, and this must be accredited most of all to the puppeteer ensemble. Our raggedy feline could be shivering with fright, brave, funny, heroic, the two puppet-masters giving vent to every emotion. The King was half-puppet, half-singer, Stephanos Koroneos, whose face peered under a miniature crown with a miniature body pinned to a real body. A dozen bunnies, which multiplied over each scene scampered about as food for the Royal Stomach–but the puppet-chef lunged everywhere, and couldn’t quite chop them up!

As for the Ogre, this was a kind of puppet apotheosis. First his giant hand appeared, then various legs, a multitude of arms, the “eggplant-shaped” stomach, and the head, spinning around the stage and somehow put together for a most frightening figure, actually turning into a lion, thanks to those puppeteers. And when finally turning into a rat, crawling up and down the walls…well, we don’t want to speak about how our Puss took care of him.

Puppeteers with K. Mushegain (© Richard Termine)

The sets and costumes were all in primary colors, the Gotham Chamber Orchestra played the music with top-rate precision (I loved above all the “National Anthem”, a silly piece by a silly trumpet player).

With only a single small exception (the Princess really didn’t need to be reading Vanity Fair since everything else was truly fairy-tale timelessness), this resulted in the children surrounding me, who were entranced, without a single fidget, while the heartiest laughter came from the adults. And in a in a single hour, this fairy-tale opera inspired both magnificence and unalloyed joy, real joy.

Harry Rolnick



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