No Peace, No Sex

Illustration by Paul WilloughbyPhoto: Courtesy of the New York City Opera

It’s eerie, even disturbing, how relevant some operas can seem in troubled times. Beethoven’s Fidelio, now playing at the Metropolitan with Karita Mattila as a sizzling Leonore, makes an impassioned statement about abusive political-imprisonment practices—in no particular country, but the gritty contemporary setting of the Met’s current production will inevitably conjure up thoughts of Gitmo or Abu Ghraib.

Meanwhile, over at the City Opera, Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess hits even more sensitive nerves as the on-strike women of Athens and Sparta march across the stage carrying stop this war signs and deliver a jolting ultimatum to their menfolk: no peace, no sex. If only Iraq could be solved so simply.

Of course neither the Met nor the City Opera intended these productions to be up-to-the-minute left-wing protests. Fidelio has served as a stirring anthem for individual freedom over governmental tyranny ever since it was first performed in the age of Napoleon, while Lysistrata goes back even further, to ancient Greece, and takes its text from Aristophanes’ celebrated antiwar play. Adamo finished writing his libretto in 2000, well before the Iraq war and the events of 9/11, and planning a piece of cutting-edge agitprop was the furthest thing from his mind. It probably did occur to him that wars among nations, as well as between the sexes, had not become obsolete, but the extra dimension that Lysistrata has for us now came about through sheer serendipity.

In any case, it’s to Adamo’s credit that he has written a completely different kind of opera from his recent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women, which enjoyed a big success and has already had an amazing number of productions all over the country. The composer himself has succinctly described the subjects of his two operas and the basic challenges they presented him: Little Women is all character and no plot, whereas Lysistrata is quite the reverse, all wild plot with only sketchy character development. Or to put it another way, as Adamo once told an interviewer, “If [Little Women] was … ten charming people in a stalled jalopy, … the play Lysistrata was an empty Porsche, speeding at 120 miles per hour.” The trick in turning Aristophanes’ polemical play into an opera is to preserve its delicious premise and swaggering comic energy while transforming a collection of amusing caricatures into a cast of richly developed personalities trapped in a ludicrous political situation.

I’m not entirely convinced that Adamo has wholly succeeded in passing that small miracle, but he has certainly made a valiant effort. Lysia, as the heroine is called here, is now provided with an actual lover, an Athenian general named Nico. Their relationship is beset with one conflict after another as civic disorder continually threatens to horn in and take total control over their own highly charged erotic wrangling—which, in a delicious way, is an exact turnabout of Aristophanes’ much simpler premise. Just who calls the shots in love or in war, and why, is the central issue here, and the human stakes suddenly become very high. That question seems to interest Adamo far more than abstract pacifist polemics, and he works out the implications in a libretto full of crisscrossing plot complexities and verbal density—perhaps more than is good for any opera.

A big problem, for me at any rate, is the text itself, which is chock-full of interior rhymes and wordplays that are clearly inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s verse techniques but too often come out sounding forced and twee. Then, too, Adamo has had the strange idea of having the Spartans talk in a sort of weird Elmer Fudd–like dialect—“Evewy state in Gweeze,” etc.—and I suspect this will only become increasingly irritating with repetition. The score is also extremely busy and constantly demands close attention. There is nothing especially difficult or academic about the music’s accessible style, but Adamo loves to embellish, decorate, develop, play intricate thematic games, make backward references, and in general keep the hyperactive orchestral background boiling every second. He is so intent on stoking up the energy level that the whole opera sometimes seems permanently trapped in its own relentless aural glare. That’s a pity, since Adamo has a real flair for expressive word setting, and one wishes he would at times just relax and let the singers do their jobs.

It’s entirely possible that another sort of production and increased familiarity with the opera could make a difference. The City Opera’s large cast, led by Emily Pulley as Lysia and Chad Shelton as Nico, performs with tireless energy, yet despite all their efforts the huge emotional range that Adamo wants to cover just doesn’t register very effectively. Derek McLane’s campy Greek cartoon sets hardly do the piece any favors, while some of the cheap vaudeville turns devised by director Michael Kahn are pretty pitiful, hitting rock bottom when an army of sex-deprived soldiers appear with erections bulging in their khakis. The hardworking orchestra under George Manahan’s direction also seems a few rehearsals short of perfection, and it could well be that there is more nuance to the score than meets the ear on this occasion.

For all that, Lysistrata is a serious, ambitious, and creatively generous piece of work that perhaps needs some retouching along with the luxury of having more time to sink in and stir an audience’s sensibilities. New American operas seldom get second chances like Adamo’s Little Women, only eight years old and already looking like a repertory piece. With luck, Lysistrata might well do the same, even when the world finds itself at peace again and can find the time to savor the opera’s ironic complexities.

Beethoven. Metropolitan Opera. Through April 13.

Mark Adamo. New York City Opera. Through April 5.

No Peace, No Sex