By George Loomis
NEW YORK – In preliminary remarks at the opening of the Prototype Festival on Jan. 5, Kim Whitener, one of its artistic directors, quoted The New York Times’ comment that “this vibrant festival becomes more central to the future of opera with every passing year.” True enough, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be setbacks along the way. One occurred just after she spoke, with the disappointing world premiere of Mata Hari by Matt Marks, a composer known for infusing his works with multiple musical idioms, including pop. Here he focuses his efforts on a sympathetic heroine no stranger to theatrical incarnations — from Greta Garbo’s 1931 film to a full-length ballet recently staged by the Dutch National Ballet.
Those for whom the name Mata Hari triggers only an image of nefarious espionage may find “sympathetic” an odd description. But Dutch-born Margaretha Zelle (1876-1917) overcame childhood hardships and an abusive marriage to achieve, under her familiar pseudonym, fame as an exotic dancer and courtesan, only to be convicted (on flimsy evidence) as a German spy. She could serve as a poster child for the struggles of a spirited woman upended by forces of a man’s world.
Fortunately, Mata Hari emerges here as more than a clichéd symbol of feminine victimization. Paul Peers’ libretto is largely structured in flashbacks presenting duos between her and the men in her life — including Vadime, her great love, and Captain Bouchardon, her ruthless prosecutor — while she is held in prison, overseen by an initially hostile nun (Mary Mackenzie). She not only converses with the men but also dances with them, thereby presenting occasions for Marks to try his hand at waltz, tango, and other dance rhythms. Yet the encounters showed a reluctance to generate dramatic tension, either individually or cumulatively, with neither text nor music proving strong enough to ward off ennui.
Only late in the 90-minute opera does it gain traction, when Mata Hari, initially strong and articulate, experiences the emotional breakdown we knew was coming. Strangely, it is triggered not by the injustice of her plight — Peers hardly tries to lay out systematically the legal and political issues — but by the guilt she feels as a failed mother. She relates the cause of her guilt to the nun, by now a sympathetic confidante. In an inspired theatrical moment, Mata Hari then turns to dance for a kind of catharsis. The scene is no less effective because Anabella Lenzu’s choreography resembles modern dance more closely than what the real Mata Hari might have engaged in.
Marks’ music, rendered by a four-person instrumental ensemble conducted by David Bloom, plus electronics, relies on a frenzied violin and melodic humming by the cast’s five male soloists for the climactic dance. The voice of Mata Hari’s deceased child (the high-voiced Tomás Cruz, singing in a crooning style; he also portrays Vadime) accompanied her expressions of guilt, and there were other notable sonorities, such as the suggestion of enveloping choral music early on. But the dance parodies lacked polish, as did other stretches of the score, and the frequency with which Marks dropped musical ideas for new ones undercut a sense of development.
The production, persuasively directed by Peers, included colorful projections (by David Jonathan Palmer) on gauzy curtains. It began with Mata Hari elevated above, and surrounded by, her men, and it ended the same way. But the second time, she blew a kiss to an unseen firing squad and, following moments of silence, gunshots rang out.
The fact that the title role is spoken might be one reason why the music sometimes seemed secondary, yet the device was no liability dramatically, especially in light of Tina Mitchell’s magnetic performance. On stage throughout, she commanded every scene, and her lithe movements handsomely served the opera’s balletic requirements. Jeffrey Gavett was strong as Bouchardon and Joshua Jeremiah excelled as a German colonel, with fine contributions also from Daniel Neer and Steve Hrycelak.
If Prototype came up short with Mata Hari, the festival is likely to fare better with its two other principal operas, each of which has previously established its worth. Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, based on Lars von Trier’s emotionally stark film, puts a young woman’s devotion to her beloved husband to the test when, maimed in an accident, he instructs her to have sex with others and report to him about the experience. The quality of Mazzoli’s music justifies the story’s transition from film to opera, and Kiery Duffy reprises her sensational performance of the leading role in the New York premiere.
Like Breaking the Waves, first seen at Opera Philadelphia in September, David Lang’s anatomy theater had its world premiere in 2016, at Los Angeles Opera. In this gruesome work set in the 18th century, audience participates in witnessing the public dissection of a convicted murderess. Typical of the opera’s favorable reception was The Los Angeles Times’ account, which observed that “it entertains even as you know full well that something is very wrong.”
Also on the boards are other works of music theater, such as Funeral Doom Spiritual, which draws on themes from Negro spirituals in examining racial injustice, and Rev. 23, a work in progress dealing with the struggle to recapture paradise on Earth as related in the Book of Revelation. It all makes for an action-packed eleven-day event ending on Jan. 15.
George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.