The concept of Deus ex machina (literally, "God out of the machine") is not a foreign concept in opera. Gilbert and Sullivan used the plot device often in their works—Frederic's servitude and the pirates' salvation in Pirates of Penzance is a commonly cited example. Wagner took the idea a step further in his Ring cycle, most notably in Die Walküre where Wotan (a literal god) puts his daughter into a magical sleep surrounded by fire so that she can stay protected until she is saved by the protagonist.
Regardless of the placement or obviousness of the device, one thing holds true: the hand of god as a twist of the plot is for the best. Unlike real life, the gods don't say no, which makes Mark Adamo's setting of Lysistrata that more compelling. Based on the play of the same name penned by Aristophanes in 411 BC, the composer turns the machina idea on its head; the gods say no.
As the final production of the 2012 festival season, the Fort Worth Opera presents Adamo's retelling of the women of ancient Greece and their bid to end the war between Athens and Sparta by withholding what men crave the most: sex.
Adamo's libretto is not a word-by-word retelling of the Aristophanes play; in the program notes, the composer talks about how he set the story "we remember" as opposed to what was actually set. There are only three scenes from the original play that survive in the modern retelling. The modified story does make great strides in painting the characters as less stereotypical than the original Greek. Instead of buffoonish men who simply do not know better than to fight like dogs, the modern setting paints the two male protagonists as thinking, honorable (well, to a degree) figures. Adamo also adds some vulnerability to the women, painting Lysis (her name before being bestowed the title of Lysistrata) as... well, human – with normal strengths, weaknesses, and desires.
The music of the opera is more difficult to comprehend. Adamo has an extremely eclectic compositional style; on one end of the spectrum, he makes prolific use of short, chopped motif figures. He contrasts these sections with grand, sweeping lyrical gestures. The difficulty lies in the connection between the two. At times, there are abrupt shifts between the two that come across as jarring and takes away (ever so slightly) the effectiveness of the dramatic action.
Visually, the material presented is simplistic but effective. Director David Gately makes solid use of scenic designer Richard Kagey's set, seamlessly integrating the various levels and staircases present. Much of the color present is the result of Chad Jung's lighting design as well as Murell Horton's costume design. Both are delightful in their own rights; Jung pulls many of the warmer (representing the Athenians) and cooler (representing the Spartans) colors of Horton's costume design to set the mood for each scene—in effect, reinforcing the colors on the cast and making the costuming stand out that much more.
Conductor Joe Illick leads the smaller orchestra effectively, though there were some issues with balance between the singers and orchestra on opening night, especially when the singers were on the mid and upper levels of the set.
Vocally, the production is truly top notch. Leading the women in their stand against the warrior men is Ava Pine, singing the role of Lysis. Once again, Ms. Pine proves that she is a true star of the opera stage; she wins the audience over with her strong, yet sweet vocal tone as well as the large amount of gravitas that bolsters and unites the entire cast and elevates their performance as a whole.
Her opposite is found in the Athenian general Nico, sung by tenor Scott Scully. His first entrance belies his effectiveness in the role; small of stature, with armor that looks ever so slightly too large for his frame, he erases any doubts with his voice. Paired with Pine, the two take over the stage when singing together. On his own, he is a force to be reckoned with as he wrestles between loyalty to his lover and loyalty to his city while trying to find his place as a leader of men.
As members of Lysis' revolt against the men of Greece, Jamie-Rose Guarrine, Liliana Piazza, Meaghan Deiter, Alissa Anderson, Corrie Donovan, Hailey Clark, Ashely Kerr and Amanda Robie are fun to watch and listen to as they alternate between the strong women warriors who take over the Acropolis and the more emotional characters who simply want to be with their husbands. Kerr especially stands out in the role of Myrrhine, especially in the scene where it falls to her to exacerbate the men's condition by flirting with and then rejecting her husband's advances.
Opposing them are the armies of Athens and Sparta, sung by Joel Herold, John Cabrali, Logan Rucker, Michael Mayes, Seth Mease Carico, Kevin Newell and Ian McEuen. Between them, no joke is left untold or unvisited; the second act opens with them making their point in expressing how exactly how they feel about their wives holding out on them (it may be juvenile, but it always gets a laugh).
Rucker and Guarrine also double in the roles of Ares (God of War) and Aphrodite (Goddess of Love), and steal the show while bringing the opera to its conclusion as well as tying a bow on the machina subplot. When a fragile truce between the armies fail and two soldiers are killed, an exasperated plea is made to the two gods to end the hostilities and the war. The two gods descend from the heavens on a cloud to impart their ruling: no. Men and women are destined to fight forever—there may be pauses, but the conflict will always remain. They do offer a consolation by bringing the two slain soldiers back to life so that all involved can restart their truce and have a true chance at extending their current "pause." All of this is contained in some of the most beautiful and moving music of the entire opera, deftly sung by the two.
Containing both the ancient and the modern, Adamo's setting of Lysistrata will please all with its music as well as stunning visual aspect. The bar is now set for next season. Let's see what they can do next.
◊ The final weekend of the Fort Worth Opera festival will feature:
Thursday, May 31, 7:30 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre OUR REVIEW
Friday, June 1, 7:30 p.m. The Marriage of Figaro at Bass Hall OUR REVIEW
Saturday, June 2, 2 p.m. Three Decembers at Scott Theatre
Saturday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. Tosca at Bass Hall OUR REVIEW
Sunday, June 3, 2 p.m. Lysistrata at Bass Hall