First Nighter: "El gato con botas," "Le Nozze di Figaro," Carlisle Floyd One-Acts as Opera Magnets

Since perfect things come along infrequently, it's absolutely required that when they do, a whole lot of carrying on attends them. The perfect thing about which I'm now holding forth is the Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Project's revival of El gato con botas.
12/09/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Since perfect things come along infrequently, it's absolutely required that when they do, a whole lot of carrying on attends them. The perfect thing about which I'm now holding forth is the Gotham Chamber Opera and Tectonic Theater Project's revival of El gato con botas (Puss in Boots), at El Museo del Barrio through the end of this week.

Search as you may, you'll find nothing wrong with the piece. The music composed by Xavier Montsalvatge is unfailingly tuneful throughout in a Verdi-influenced way. Neal Goren's conducting of a 12-strong orchestra is brisk and bright. The Nestor Lujan libretto, aimed at both children and adults (albeit on different levels), is constantly amusing. Moises Kaufman's directing is full of surprises. The nine-person puppeteer team -- puppet captain Stefano Brancato, Jonothon Lyons and Aaron Schroeder manipulating the unbooted and then booted Puss -- is magically present and invisible.

The singing in the appealingly small auditorium -- the walls of which are covered with Willy Pogany's murals depicting moments from fairy tales (Puss in Boots included) -- is uniformly vivacious. At the performance I saw, Karin Mushegain (who sings in English at matinees, while Ginger Costa-Jackson does the evening performances in Spanish), was a rogue-ish and lively Puss.

Craig Verm as the macho miller and cat owner who comes to respect the scrawny creature he inherits, Andrea Carroll as the princess whose hand in marriage the miller wants, Kevin Burdette as the Ogre whom Puss cajoles into becoming a graspable bird and Stephanos Koroneos as the realm's benevolent king are consistently in good voice and good humor.

So are puppet director Mark Down, puppet designer Nick Barnes of Blind Summit Theatre, set designer Andromache Chalfant, costume designer Clint Ramos, sound designer David Lander and choreographer Sean Curran.

If I've left anyone out for praise, it's entirely unintentional, since every aspect of this El gato con botas -- which perhaps has been tweaked since its 2010 debut and made even better than it was then -- is sterling. That's as it follows the tale (as well as the tail) of the underfed cat who requires a feathered cap, a cape, a sword and those boots (here they look more like fancy booties) before he can find fame, fortune and riches for his depressed master.

As to the bouquet of marvelous moments that whiz past, I'll only mention: 1) the nifty shadow play that occurs when Puss is transformed from skin and bones into a blow-dried cavalier; 2) the couple of times when Puss does his pas de chat, which is to say when the puppeteering puns visually on ballet's use of cat references; and 3) the need to see the production immediately to experience fully why it should become a holiday perennial. It's one of those things that can't be beat for good cheer.
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Le Nozze di Figaro--this year's 2014-15 season Metropolitan Opera House opener -- has a new cast, and all's right with the production.

That's to say there's nothing wrong with the singing -- or, of course, with the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-Lorenzo Da Ponte work, which is so magnificent that it can't be defeated no matter how hard misguided hands try. And Rob Howell has certainly tried with a set that looks like a cast-iron wing of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon.

It's hard to know what director Richard Eyre was thinking when he had longtime collaborator Howell construct this swiveling edifice. Maybe it has to do with the obligation the large house regularly puts on filling the mammoth stage, even for an endlessly charming small-scale opus like this one.

But enough about the abiding problem of a looming thing that threatens to swallow the complicated romantic entanglements playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais thought up to mock what happens when conniving, often womanizing men scheme to catch out the faithful and usually smarter women in their lives.

Wearing Howell's richly realized 1930s costumes, everyone cavorting on stage under Eyre's careful direction looks right, acts even better and sings at his or her best -- much thanks as well to Edo de Waart, who conducts the flow of endlessly inspired music as it were the 1786 first night. Is there another opera extant wherein a composer found so many opportunities for four, five, six, seven characters to sing simultaneously and gloriously? If there is, it's slipped my mind.

Taking every opportunity to sound impeccable are Erwin Schrott as Figaro and Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva, Danielle de Niese as Susannah, Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Countess Almaviva, Serena Malfi as Cherubino, John Del Carlo as Doctor Bartolo, Susanne Mentzer as Marcellina, Alan Oke as Don Basilio, Philip Cokorinos a Antonio. Ashley Emerson as Barbarina and Scott Scully as Don Curzio.

Take it on faith that their interpretations ring the bell, but also understand that de Niese and Willis-Sorenson sing their threnodies with voluptuous tone, and Malfi does the same with, as an added fillip, a foolish boy's gait down pat. The imposing Del Carlo makes for a wonderful presence.

There's something else especially serendipitous about the cast: Schrott and Kwiecien facing off. Both virile men -- who couldn't appear more buff in Howell's period-evocative clothes -- happen to look very much like each other, which underlines something about the class contradictions Beaumarchais was on about and which Mozart and Da Ponte enhanced.

That's to say, the equality of all mankind sold wholesale here as the French Revolution is pending is emphasized by the undoubtedly unintentional casting. The situation only make a great opera even greater.
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On yet another opera bill: Two Carlisle Floyd one-acts -- Slow Dusk and Markheim -- are at 59E59 in 15-instrument chamber versions (Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig, the arrangers), conducted by Richard Cordova and directed by Philip Shneidman as a Little Opera Theatre of NY presentation.

Slow Dusk involves a North Carolina family, who might be McCoys. You see, Sadie (Carolina Castells, the performance I attended, though there's an alternating cast) is a young woman of the back hills brood who's enamored of Micah (John Kaneklides), a neighbor boy identified as a Hatfield, and that's as verboten a development as a Capulet marrying a Montague.

In the work, which has the feel of a nicely composed curtain raiser, Castell sings with piercing effect. Kaneklides does, too, which rendered their love scene appropriately touching. Robert Balonek is robust as McCoy(?) family member Jess, although Janice Meyerson is less vocally impressive as Aunt Sue.

The more exciting of the two works is Markheim, a sort of darker O. Henry story about the troubled title character (Tyler Putnam) attempting to raise money on Christmas Eve at a local pawnshop, run by a Scrooge-like owner called in Charles Dickens-like fashion, Josiah Creach (Brent Reilly Turner).

Though shop assistant Tess (Angela Mannino) and a mysterious stranger (Matthew Tuell) who could be Markheim's id -- as well as a caroling quartet (uncredited) -- participate, the primary action occurs between the two unpleasant men. Their ultimately defeating confrontations give Floyd plenty of opportunity for combat-conjuring melodies and also give Putnam and Turner plenty of opportunity to create compelling figures. The verdict? This one's worth knowing about.