Gruber at His Perplexing, Tedious Best

HK Gruber, Gloria–A Pig Tale: Soloists, AXIOM, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 30.5.2014. (DA)

Image: Gloria - A Pig Tale (detail) © Doug Fitch
Image: Gloria – A Pig Tale (detail) © Doug Fitch

Lauren Snouffer (Gloria)
Brenda Patterson (Solo pig, etc.)
Alexander Lewis (Gerhard, etc.)
Carlton Ford (Farmer, etc.)
Kevin Burdette (Rodrigo, etc.)

Giants Are Small (production)
Doug Fitch (director)
Eduoard Getaz (producer)

This little piggy went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and came away exhausted. The centrepiece of the early days of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial doesn’t actually feature the Philharmonic, just its Music Director in his near-annual venture with Doug Fitch and Giants Are Small. We’ve already had Le Grand Macabre, The Cunning Little Vixen, and last year’s A Dancer’s Dream from this team, and now this, HK Gruber’s darkly comic chamber opera from the 1990s, Gloria—A Pig’s Tale.

The story is pretty simple. Gloria, the rare pig that’s cute, is melancholy. As all the other pigs are mean and envious swine, and they banish her from the sty. Gloria’s prince eventually comes, in the shape of the butcher. But wait, a handsome boar is ready to save Gloria’s bacon! The lothario Rodrigo (alias Steve) takes care of the butcher, whose sausages take revenge. There’s no happy ending, though, as we snap forward to see Rodrigo and Gloria taking family pictures, piglets zooming around, as she sings of eternal happiness and he moans about being “trapped for life.”

Gilbert, in rather unnecessary opening remarks, was at least right to say that Gloria would “confound expectations” at every turn. Gruber’s particular brand of humour (and, one suspects, politics) is relentlessly parodic. Nothing in Gloria emerges unscathed, nothing escapes the roast. The satire begins right in the “Prelude/Overture,” a swinging, Weill-esque charade in which repetitions seem to rub against one another, maybe at different tempi, in mechanical but jazzy style. The young players of AXIOM—or at least its brass section, a percussion field, and a single, brave violinist (Fabiola Kim)—instantly showed that their playing would be secure and confident enough to make mincemeat of this tricky score, although Gilbert just as quickly indicated that he wouldn’t be picking out details in the zesty textures. But then the prelude just kept going, and going…and going.

Was it parodying itself, or a whole genre, or both? Who knows? I had the same uncertainty about the music’s reprise, at the end of the first part. That it came back at all seemed a bit like finding a good piece of cold meat at the back of the fridge, only to discover its colour is a bit off. But then Gruber steals Haydn’s joke from the end of the “Farewell” symphony, and each of the players drifts off, the only difference being that it isn’t the conductor left at the end, but the leader. If it’s contrived, that’s probably the point. And that applies to the music in general, too. It’s heavily referential, especially to jazz but with some striking atonality in there too, and the “March of the Pedigree Pigs,” although scary in its intolerance, sounds uncomfortably close to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The self-knowing satire of opera never ceases either. The end of the first part (prelude reprise aside) culminates in a frankly erotic, really quite moving duet between Gloria and the butcher, a send-up surely of countless love duets that we shouldn’t be taking seriously. You’re left wondering what, if anything, to take seriously, whether that’s even the right question to be asking, or if the joke is really on us for sitting through it at all. Even so, you’re always aware that this is Gruber, and Gruber at his perplexing, tedious best.

I’m less sure that this represented Giants Are Small at their best, though. Fairy tales always have their edge of darkness, and the shadowy lighting, all-too-naïve cardboard costumes, and menacing choreography all brought that amply across. But from time to time there was something too cute by half about it all. At times, this felt a bit like a high school production, especially in the big reveal at the start of the love duet, when the back screen rose to show the prince on a stepladder, decorating some cotton-wool clouds (staging, see?). High production values mixed with low, not unlike in Gruber’s music, but without the coherence. Jokes grew tedious quickly. Frogs croaked with knees bending, but did nothing more, while the sausages were no more than forlorn. Especially wearing, though probably practical, was the oratorio-in-an-opera joke in the second act quintet, when each singer in turn pulled out a score, bound in a sleeve marked “The Hard Part.”

The five singers were all excellent, as far as I could tell through the auditorium’s unfortunately primitive amplification system. (Gruber does specify that the singers be amplified, but I was sat to one side of the hall, so either got a full voice and no amplification, when being sung directly at, or sound hitting solely my left ear.) Singing Gloria with just the right of dollish self-regard, Lauren Snouffer brought a very attractive, Disney-ish tone of voice and, in the context of the work and the production, a welcome authenticity and sincerity of character. Brenda Patterson and Carlton Ford both sang with curiosity and commitment. Kevin Burdette made an aptly randy Rodrigo, his bass supremely precise, conveying the boar’s weird mixture of cocksure bravado and ultimate cowardice. The star, though, was tenor Alexander Lewis. He was apparently unwell for this performance, but one would never have known were it not for the announcement. Hostile and creepy as the butcher, he proved as fine a physical actor as his singing was clear and his diction accurate. All of them deserve to be heard in a piece less enervating that this.

David Allen

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