Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Muni Double Bill powerful, shocking

By Janelle Gelfand
Enquirer staff writer

Nicholas Muni's Double Bill, The Emperor of Atlantis and The Maids, shocked, surprised, disturbed and ultimately gripped the Cincinnati Opera audience Thursday night in Music Hall. No doubt the avant-garde production, which included a moment of full frontal nudity, will inspire controversy, particularly among the dozens who left early, and the many others in the crowd of 2,253 who fled as soon as the curtain fell.

Yet it was an artistic coup for the company's artistic director Muni, whose reputation for pushing boundaries reached a new apex in this bold, provocative production. A superb cast of singing actors and excellent conducting from the well-regarded Patrick Summers made this an extraordinary evening of high drama.

The audience was thrust into Muni's futuristic setting for Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis before the opera began. A Brave New World-style news broadcast, dated June 24, 2015, beamed out mindless propaganda non-stop on a huge plasma screen. (The global national product was up; chief indicators included the starvation index and the homeless quotient.)

Composed in a concentration camp, The Emperor is an allegory, in which the title character, Emperor Overall, originally symbolized Hitler. (In Muni's version, Overall is an anonymous dictator.) The character Death goes on strike, and no one can die until the dictator, sung by Brian Leerhuber, agrees to die. That act restores death to humanity.

Overall reigned in a high tech palace room, floating over a destroyed landscape peopled by huddled masses, insurgents and machine gun-toting soldiers - a striking design by Dany Lyne.

Despite Muni's intentions, it was hard to separate the opera from its Holocaust roots, especially when Ullmann's cabaret-like score parodied "Deutschland uber alles" (Germany Over All) and ended with a moving, distorted chorale to the music of "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Death was not only the Final Solution for the Nazis, but the final savior to those who were tortured - hence, the work's real impact.

Still, it made one dread that this could ever happen again. The Loudspeaker (Thomas Goerz) introduced the characters on the big screen. The Drummer (symbolizing war), Allyson McHardy, was cast as a seductive Charlie's Angel. Life was a harlequin in all white, from his top hat to his toes (tenor Mark Panuccio captured the role's satirical wit wonderfully). As Death, Andrew Gangestad was an all-white ancient warrior, who flung his staff away when he went on strike.

In a slight change to the original story, the Soldier (Ray M. Wade, Jr.) and Bubikopf (Nancy Allen Lundy) were both shot. Unable to die, they fell in love, singing a poignant, minor-keyed ballad with fresh young voices.

Lighting by Thomas C. Hase was remarkable. Just before the Emperor abdicated, he sang, "Am I still a man, or now merely God's computer?" as Death cast a shadow over him.

The work's emotional high point was the concluding chorus of the living dead, which stood motionless in the dark, clutching small red lights, and intoning, "Come, Death."

After intermission, Peter Bengtson's The Maids, in its North American premiere, was positively chilling. Based on the Jean Genet play, Les Bonnes, the opera concerns a real-life, 1933 French crime in which two maids murdered their mistress. In the opera, Madame (sung by Stephanie Novacek) avoids death by poisoned tea, and a sister takes her place.

It was Hitchcock meets Arnold Schoenberg. Bengtson's modernist music, which traveled from 1940s Hollywood to 12-tone, perfectly fit the schizophrenic nature of sisters Claire and Solange. Lundy (Claire) and McHardy (Solange) were called upon to speak, sing Queen of the Night-style coloratura and perform Sprechstimme (speech song) as they journeyed between heightened flights of madness and mere neuroticism.

The psychological thriller opened with a video - Madame in bed with her lover, while a maid scrubbed the floor. The lush, post-romantic overture set the film-noir tone wonderfully. Instead of a bedroom, Muni's concept was a clinical bathroom, where Claire - role-playing as Madame - was luxuriating in the tub.

Using the same floating room, the destroyed landscape below now supposedly symbolized the destroyed psyche of the two sisters, represented by two children - but it was unclear. A child removed a shroud to reveal a statue of the Madonna, which seemed bizarre.

The acting - calculating, hysterical and hinting at lesbianism - was seamless with the music. Lundy tackled the difficult vocal leaps that recalled Schoenberg's Erwartung spectacularly, as she exited the tub and wiggled into her lingerie.

McHardy projected both mournfulness and anger in Solange's lament, "No one loves us." Another musical high point was Claire's "Dream Aria," which had magical flourishes in the orchestra.

The climax came as Claire drank her tea, and the action froze for a full minute before the curtain fell.

In the pit, 23 members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played with precision and nuance, superbly led by Summers.

E-mail jgelfand@enquirer.com