Unlikely Locale Suits Rare Milhaud Opera

Milhaud, Le pauvre matelot (“The Poor Sailor”): Soloists, Pocket Opera of New York, Nicholas De Maison (arranger and conductor), Fraunces Tavern, New York City. 1.11.2011 (BH)

Darius Milhaud: Le pauvre matelot (“The Poor Sailor”) (1927)

Libretto and Cast:

Libretto by Jean Cocteau
Translation by Andreas Hager
New chamber arrangement by Nicholas De Maison
The Sailor: Donald Groves (tenor)
The Step-Father: Adrian Rosas (bass-baritone)
The Wife: Claire Kuttler (soprano)
The Friend: Jonathan Woody (bass-baritone)

Production and Instrumentalists:

Production: Andreas Hager
Costume Designer: Joel Yapching
Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Chaney
Stage Manager: Kasey Burgess
Production Manager: Shawna Lucey

PONY Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: Nicholas DeMaison
Assistant Conductor: Alan Hamilton
Flute: Amelia Lukas
Viola: Hannah Levinson
Cello: Caleigh Drane
Accordion: Nathan Koci

PONY Chorus
Amanda Keil
Morgan Harmison
Christopher Preston
Amanda Sidebottom

Conductor Nicholas DeMaison (center) leads the ensemble. Photo by Alic Trossman

I don’t recall ever seeing an opera staged in a bar, but since Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot (“The Poor Sailor”) is actually set in a bar, Pocket Opera of New York chose a venue which made perfect sense: Fraunces Tavern, a neighborhood icon dating from 1762 and the oldest building in Manhattan. Milhaud’s odd piece can’t have been performed often (there are a handful of recordings still in print) but at about a half-hour, it deserves a place in the repertory. For this performance, composer Nicholas De Maison contributed a deft chamber arrangement for viola, cello, flute and accordion, and in a bold stroke, grafted on some Britten (“Old Joe Has Gone Fishing” from Peter Grimes), Ives and additional traditional American sea melodies.

The result, about 50 minutes, had a peculiar charm, starting with a drunken sailor (Donald Groves) first seen passing out against a wall. The plot focuses on his wife (Claire Kuttler) who has been biding her time waiting for him while he has been at sea. Meanwhile her step-father (Adrian Rosas) and friend (Jonathan Woody) are encouraging her to find a new mate, a proposition she steadfastly refuses. The Sailor eventually enters the bar but is unrecognizable to all, including his wife, who eventually kills him.

The quartet of singers offered delightful intimacy, as if they were singing in your own living room. Groves deployed his bearish physique to comic effect, as well as a sweet tenor to underline the “Oh, no!” factor when his mistaken identity turns tragic. Kuttler filled the room with a fetching, roseate soprano. And Rosas and Woody added clear, robust bass-baritones to try to encourage her (unsuccessfully) to take a new paramour. De Maison led the nimble quartet – the accordion giving a whiff of sea shanty color – in the charming score that seemed to grow darker as it progressed.

Crowded into sofas and chairs set up in Fraunces Tavern’s Bissell Room – a mural on one wall shows New York in 1771 – perhaps 100 people (including four chorus members, cleverly camouflaged in the audience) seemed enchanted. (And quaffing drinks during the show was encouraged.) Part of Pocket Opera’s mission is “to challenge the traditional opera experience” and if this occasion was representative, they’re succeeding. The season continues with Handel’s Apollo e Dafne and Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine – both tantalizingly, at locations “to be announced.”

Bruce Hodges

For more information: Pocket Opera of New York