Leave it to Neal Goren. He's cherry-picked Bohuslav Martinu's comic one-acts Alexandre Bis and Comedy on the Bridge as the first of the Gotham Opera Company's 2014-15 season, and he's owed three or more cheers for doing so.
It's a risky notion, since the Czech-born Martinu (1890-1959, who spent much of his life in Paris, isn't particularly well known in these parts. On the other hand, that's precisely the sort of choice Goren fans have come to expect, and good on him for sticking to his strong inclinations. Gotham Opera Company loyals will undoubtedly remember that the founder/artistic director/conductor put up a Martinu double-bill in 2002--Hlas Lesa and Les larmes du couteau.
The two pieces he's showing off now have a common theme, and both might have been called Cosi Fan Tutte, if the name hadn't been taken by a predecessor. Come to think of it, Martinu was clearly bowing to Mozart with the brief operas in which the possible infidelity of women is shown.
In Alexandre Bis, or the Tragedy of a Man Who Had His Beard Cut, the bearded title fellow (Jarrett Ott), shaves his facial hair to return as his supposed Texas cousin in order that inamorata Armande (Jenna Siladie) be tested. The outcome--involving the love goddess Philomene (Cassandra Zoe Velasco), a portrait of Alexandre that comes to life (Joseph Beutel) and Oscar (Jason Slayden) another contender for Armande's attentions--results in little good for anyone.
In Comedy on the Bridge, lovers with safe-passage notes arrive at, yes, a bridge, manned by guards from opposing factions, each of whom allows the arrivals on but refuses to let them off.
The giddy, frustrated ladies are Popelka (Siladie) and Eva (Abigail Fischer). The interested, suspicious men are Ucitel (Slayden), Sykos (Ott) and Bedron (Beutel). The uniformed, rifle-bearing sentries are played by Christian Smith-Kotlarek and Aaron Sorenson, and there's a late appearing officer (Joshua Dennis).
Both operas are directed by James Marvel on a stunning black-and-white Cameron Anderson eye-candy set (trees, the dominant feature). He presents Alexandre Bis as extremely stylized and does very nicely by his merry intentions. Sung about in French, the shenanigans are amusing. Marvel mounts The Comedy on the Bridge, sung in Czech, in a far less stylized manner. Since the comedy in this one isn't somehow comical enough--somewhat trying, actually--the director might have played it even more straightforwardly.
Of course, you can't rush the music, and who would want to? Not Goren, that's for certain. Martinu's score for Alexandre Bis is jaunty and jovial and even includes satirical hints. Goren brings it all out. The Comedy on the Bridge is strung with militaristic riffs that Goren also makes the most of.
Of course, it isn't surprising that The Comedy on the Bridge, written in 1935 between the two great wars, has a military undercurrent. Stranded on the bridge, the focal characters are in a neither-here-nor-there predicament, which must have reflected how any number of Europeans felt at the time. Martinu's situation as a Czech expat in France is probably another underlying element.
If so, he has found a way to turn anxiety into good clean fun, and Goren and company have craftily built on that.