United States Eccles, Judge Me Paris:A Baroque Burlesque Opera, Company XIV, 303 Bond St. Theatre, Brooklyn, New York, 20.5.2012 (SSM)
Directed, choreographed, and conceived by Austin McCormick in association with Morningside Opera and SIREN Baroque
Excerpts from The Judgment of Paris by John Eccles, with additional music by Antonio Vivaldi, Marin Marais and Eccles (from the Mad Lover)
Libretto by William Congreve, with additional text by Jeff Takacs
Brett Umlauf (Pallas)
Amber Youell (Juno)
Brittany Palmer (Venus)
Jeff Takacs (Zeus)
Sean Gannon (Paris)
Laura Careless (Helen)
Cailan Orn (Mercury)
What should one expect when the press release for an event specifically states, “No one under 16 will be admitted”? And the event in question is not an explicit play or movie but an opera of the Baroque period? To be honest, Judge Me Paris would hold little shock for any 16-year-old who is willing to ignore peer pressure and attend an opera, let alone one from the early 18th century.
The bawdiness in this turned-around version of John Eccles’s The Judgment of Paris was not only effective but, in fact, may have been closer to how the opera was originally produced. Contemporary playwrights Thomas Shadwell and William Congreve and earlier playwrights William Wycherley and George Etherege filled their plays with double entendre, sexual innuendo, adultery and cuckolding. Shadwell complains in a preface to his first play, Sullen Lovers, that the main characters in the works of his contemporaries are “most commonly a Swearing, Drinking, Whoring Ruffian for a Lover and an impudent ill-bred tomrig [harlot] for a Mistress.”
Although costumed in “whoring” attire, the dancers and singers refrained from overly explicit gestures and put more emphasis on suggestive actions and movements. Upon entering the theater and seeing that the cast, in various stages of déshabillé, were already “on stage” (the stage being a large dressing room) did make one feel like a voyeur. During the performance the actor/actresses’ use of a hand held video camera focused closely on each other enhanced this sense of being an outsider peeking in. When the video was played back on the wall and stage floor, the second or two time delay created an effective sensation of disjuncture.
Given the number of early operas over the past few years that have been put through the grinder only to come out a different but wholly valid theatrical experience, it speaks to the malleability of this art form. The inevitable comparison of Judge Me Paris with the Met’s recent Baroque opera pastiche, The Enchanted Island, show that both are valid and successful recreations of Baroque style and practice regardless of the difference in scope and size. Both operas borrow freely from several composers, a practice not uncommon in the Baroque period itself, although Judge Me Paris does take more liberties with both the music and the staging. The addition of an anachronistically obnoxious Zeus, broadly played by Jeff Takacs, shifted the emphasis away from Paris to the tawdry machinations of an all-too-human con artist. Modern-day songs, including one with Zeus on a guitar, moved the opera out of the 18th century. SIREN Baroque’s four instrumentalists were supportive as well as attentive to the singers and dancers. The two recognizable Marais pieces, “Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève” and “Variations on La Folia,” were played with an unusual freshness. The arias from the Eccles opera were delightfully rendered with just the right period vocal touch. At its best moments the music could have been written by Purcell.
The choreography may have suffered a bit from the weight and awkwardness of the dancers’ attire, but it was a nice change from the ultra-formality of Catherine Turocy and the overly programmatic choreography of Mark Morris. Sean Gannon as Paris, on stage and dancing through most of the production, is to be admired for both his grace and his stamina.
If you can, go see Judge Me Paris – and take your 17-year-old with you.
Additional performances will be given on 24-27 May.