Going to an opera at The Barns in northern Virginia certainly is different. It’s different from seeing any opera, or even the same opera, in one of those glittering 19th century palaces that grace Paris, Milan and even Odessa on the Black Sea. And it’s different from seeing any opera, or even the same opera, in one of those soaring yet blockish performing arts centers erected in the 1960s and afterward, including DC’s own Kennedy Center.
As a venue, The Barns actually is two old barns, cobbled together carefully in Wolf Trap’s usual wooded setting, one of them now containing a 300-plus seat theater. That space played host last night to not one but two short operas, in the double-bill spirit of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, with two more performances Friday and Sunday. Except these two operas are different too.
Though it’s been produced to NOT look like it, Merlin’s Island by Christoph Willibald Gluck sounds like what it is – a light, frothy, funny entertainment debuted in a palace (the Schonbrunn in Vienna, no less) in 1758. Think Mozart or Bach, and except for the accordion woven in here and there, that’s the sound you get. On the other hand, if you didn’t know the backstory of The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann, you could learn it later and not be surprised.
Emperor was composed in Bohemia, roughly half of today’s Czech Republic, in 1943. Yet the opera wasn’t performed anywhere until the Netherlands Opera set it before the world more than three decades later. Emperor, you see, was composed at Terezin. A Nazi concentration camp. And despite the sophisticated mix of musicians being held there and in the expected audience, Der Kaiser von Atlantis was never given. It seems the overlords decided the title character looked and acted a little too much like the man powering the Nazi regime from Berlin. Ullmann and his artistic Terezin compatriots were shipped on to an extermination camp, called Auschwitz.
Merlin’s Island is a romp, pure and simple, and its omnipresent social commentary is never meant to truly disturb – surely not disturb the glitterati of 1758 sitting around the Schonbrunn. Like the kids concept of Opposites Day, this opera performed in French presents us with Le Monde Renverse (The World Turned Upside Down). Two sailors get shipwrecked on an island run, naturally enough, by a wizard named Merlin. The two explore, fall in love with two women who appear, like Venus, from a pink seashell, overcome a couple of more-macho rivals, marry the women and live happily ever after.
On this Merlin’s island, however, what’s important is that everything is reversed from, well, real life. Lawyers are honest, judges are wise, politicians work for the people, every lover is faithful, and love always lasts forever. This is all revealed in song or dialogue, not especially part of this or any other plot – a lot of it by Merlin himself, as though being blessed with such a world would require considerable magic.
Conor McDonald plays Merlin, and thanks to director Richard Gammon, conductor Geoffrey McDonald and especially costume designer Jonathan Knipscher, he is the part of the show no one is likely to ever forget. He wanders through the action, or watches from steps or bits of balcony, as the lovers find and fall for each other, smiling, sighing, commenting. He does so in an outlandish series of costumes that evoke going to the beach – with Elton John as your swimming buddy. Sequins abound.
McDonald sings several funny arias with effortless control and bubbling personality, ad libs a bit, and most hilariously, does all this in Parisian French as well as Quebecois and, for one crowd-pleasing number, fluent highbrow French with a dreadful American accent.
Everybody else in the cast has a wonderful time, spinning and spoofing around McDonald: Ben Edquist and Daniel Noyola as the sailors, Shannon Jennings and Nira Liu as their new girlfriends, Megan Esther Grey as a kind of doctor (cleverly named Hippocratine), Bradley Bickhardt and Justin Burgess as the rivals, and Wilford Kelly as a kindly-wise judge named Prud’homme. McDonald, the conductor not the Merlin, matches the romp onstage with something similar from the orchestra pit, except for the accordion that’s played at audience level.
Featuring many of the same cast members, The Emperor of Atlantis performed in German is nowhere near as somber as you might expect. The whole thing, in fact, is quite comic if also quite dark. There is a dictator, wonderfully played by Edquist, who is having so many people killed that Death himself gets put out, essentially going on strike. Hangings just don’t work the way they used to, or even firing squads. Much to the dictator’s frustration, no one is dying.
All this is carried out visually with remarkable, metaphorical and memorable precision, including Noyola as the character called Loudspeaker and Grey as Drummer, both of whom help tell the story. For her part, Grey beats her drum while dressed as what might well be Hitler Youth, a touch unlikely at Terezin in 1943. Tenor Joshua Blue delights as Harlekin, and bass Anthony Robin Schneider towers as the frighteningly red-caped figure of Death. At the time and place of Emperor’s creation, he was a figure everyone knew well.
Photos by Scott Suchman: (top) Merlin’s Island, (bottom) The Emperor of Atlantis