American Début of a Spidery Opera:
These are tough times for arachnophobes. At the movies, slimy Shelob is preying on tender hobbit flesh in The Return of the King. A voracious lady spider will invade the opera house, too, when Gotham Chamber Opera tonight opens the U.S. premiere of Heinrich Sutermeister’s Die schwarze Spinne (The Black Widow).
Sutermeister (1910-95), a student of Carl Orff, wrote Die schwarze Spinne in 1936 and revised it in 1949. It tells the story of Christine, a young woman who kisses the devil to save her town from the plague. Unable to ransom her soul, Christine turns into a spider and is destroyed by her pious neighbors in the name of life and love.
Imaginatively orchestrated for just three strings, piano and harmonium, with a full complement of brass and percussion, the hour-long score has something of the queasy, overripe quality of Richard Strauss’ Salome, another potboiler turning on religious fanaticism and the loathing of women’s sexuality.
“The essence of this opera is the implacability of Christine’s society, unwilling to stretch their rules even for their own good,” said Neal Goren, conductor and artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera.
Die schwarze Spinne is typical of the refreshingly atypical fare that has made a major player of this diminutive company (formerly known as Henry Street Chamber Opera). The troupe’s first three years have brought local premieres of Mozart and Martinu operas in cheeky productions set in space-age bachelor pads or seamy amusement parks. The intimate dimensions of the Harry de Jur Playhouse on the Lower East Side encourage the kind of searching acting rarely seen in larger venues, where semaphore-style theatrics often prevail.
Gotham also has banked on gutsy singing from up-and-coming stars. Goren noted with pride that every member of the Sutermeister ensemble has been a soloist in a leading company or apprentice program. His Christine, mezzo Beth Clayton, will be featured in this spring’s New York City Opera revival of Handel’s Xerxes. She sings with an aching vulnerability and a vibrant, wide-ranging tone that recall the late Tatiana Troyanos.
A former accompanist to Leontyne Price, Goren has a knack for assembling top-notch teams. The Sutermeister crew includes Robin Guarino, who has directed at the Met and Glimmerglass, and veterans from Broadway’s The Lion King. The conductor may seem easygoing, but he runs a tight ship. “You are the dream cast!” he cooed in rehearsal, deftly shifting gears: “And this is a possible effect, but it’s not the one I want.” Annotations scribbled into scores, the singers sat up straight, awaiting Goren’s no-nonsense downbeat.
Gotham’s high-powered board, led by Karen Lerner, also has been key to its success, recently boosting the company’s annual budget from $260,000 to $365,000, despite lean times. “When you have a good purpose, the resources will follow—if you deliver,” said managing director Tim O’Leary.
Arachnophobes or not, opera lovers are looking to Gotham to deliver again with Sutermeister’s creepy-crawly rarity.