Trouble in Tunisia

Two mini-works at the Kammeroper: Darius Milhaud’s ironic parable and Georges Antheil’s attempts at domestic tranquility

Pablo Cameselle, Nazanin Ezazi, Andreas Jankowitsch, Diana Higbee, Mentu Nubia in the American George Antheil’s 1954 frothy one-act opera, Venus in Africa | Photo: Christian Husar

Without going into details, the domestic troubles of the two short operas currently at the Kammeroper seemed alarmingly familiar. Why do men think that true love needs testing, or believe that a wandering eye will inevitably turn up something better? Indeed, for whatever reason, I ended up at the Kammeroper next to an empty seat. But the ensuing two mini operas and their commentary on life, love and some of the ironic foibles of relationships let me laugh at my (mis)fortune and hope for better days.

A lament in three (very short) acts, Darius Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot (The Unfortunate Mariner) is a salut d’amour gone wrong. First performed in 1927 in Paris, Milhaud’s vignette is characteristically French, with curiously light and airy music underlining an ostensibly tragic tale with a final dramatic twist.

For fifteen years the mariner’s wife has been waiting patiently (and faithfully) for her husband to come home. Her step-father counsels her to remarry: as he so candidly says, a woman over 40 can’t be picky. But although courted by her long-ago husband’s best friend, she is stubbornly sure her husband is still alive.

The mariner does return, scarred and weathered from his adventuring around the world. As a misguided test of love – or is it a joke? – he invents a sad tale, telling his wife that he just saw her husband alive, but imprisoned and destitute. The wife gives her husband’s supposed acquaintance a bed.

But the game of hide and seek goes on too long: Thinking she needs a ransom to save her husband, she murders the guest in his sleep to steal the pearl necklace he had so blatantly flaunted. The opera ends before she discovers what she has done: An ironic parable pitoyable.

In the 1920s and 30s, a loose band of composers calling themselves “Les Six” (The Six) were the rage of Paris. Unprincipled and experimental, Milhaud was part of the group, spontaneously combining folk and popular music, much of it heard during his extensive travels around the world (he spent the years of WWI, for example, in Brazil). He enjoyed oddities as well, such as his Machines agricoles, a group of songs whose lyrics are catalog descriptions of farm machinery.

Originally from Provence, his music is fresh and expressive; it feels sun soaked and splashed with color.

In 1940, Milhaud, being Jewish, was forced to leave France, becoming one of the many European musicians who found refuge in California. He taught composition at Mills College in Oakland for many years, and thus today, his music is better known in the U.S. It is a rare chance to hear him in Central Europe. (Although we are in luck: This year’s Carinthian Summer Music Festival (Jul.-Aug.) will also feature Milhaud, whose wonderful Le bœuf sur le toit will be its centerpiece.)

This amuse-gueule was followed by George Antheil’s 1954 one-act opera Venus in Africa. The young American Antheil was also part of the Paris scene of the 1920s and 30s. A dandy and darling, he was befriended by Joyce, Yeats, Pound, Satie, Picasso and many others. He lived in a one-room flat above Shakespeare and Company, using and abusing the help of the more prominent around him. Pound wrote a long, sugary poem about him; Stravinsky organized a concert of his music (at which Antheil didn’t show up: he had gone off to Poland in pursuit of a woman).

Antheil was the “bad boy of music” (the title of his unabashed 1945 autobiography which became a bestseller); his music left scandals in its wake. To the vast enjoyment of many, the first performance of his piano sonatas in Paris caused fist fights in the aisles.

Boisterous and rambunctious as it is, however, Antheil’s music is not great; in fact some of it is awful. His Venus is a hodgepodge potpourri, stolen from Offenbach to Bernstein, topped off with a sprinkling of Richard Strauss, boogie-woogie and snake charmer melodies.

But its jazzy swing is fun and the story is cute. Like a little copy of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (1952), here the trouble has taken a trip to Tunisia.

Charles and Yvonne are having an all-out holiday fight. Yvonne picks up and leaves, and Charles curses that “damned female independence!” Dull routine makes any man blind: a cue for the entrance of Venus. Playing the devil’s advocate, she tells Charles, “There are other women: pleasure lies in change.” That’s just what he wants to hear, and tosses his beautiful seductress to the floor. What a night!

But in the morning Venus reveals that she has had thousands of men, Charles is bewildered, and Yvonne comes back. Discovering that some money changed on the black market has made them rich, they make up, slightly sheepishly and probably not for long.

Lovely singing from the French-American Diana Higbee (Le matelot’s wife and Yvonne), who has the light sort of clear voice just suited for this size stage and this not-too-serious music. Andreas Jankowitsch (Le matelot’s friend and Charles) was quite persuasive. Nazanin Ezazi, as Venus, was able to manage the needed seductiveness in combination with her condescending lessons in love. The tenor voice of Pablo Cameselle (Le matelot and the peddler) was bright and flexible.

June will bring five more performances of the Milhaud-Antheil duo in the cool souterrain hall of the Kammeroper. For a capricious evening to alleviate some of the summer’s early heat, have a light G’spritzter and then go see these two pleasing little operas: it might just insure some domestic tranquility.


Wiener Kammeroper
1., Fleischmarkt 24 (Schwedenplatz)
Performances: 2, 4, 7, 9, 11 June 2011

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