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28 Mar 2006

"Lysistrata, Or the Nude Goddess" at NYC Opera

Having missed the first 10 minutes of Lysistrata, Or the Nude Goddess, I foolishly crept into my seat where I saw what appeared to be four raging Lainie Kazan’s protesting war by Athenian ruins.

Truncating this newly refurbished edition of Aristophane’s play, it turns out, had not ruined my understanding or appreciation of the performance. Luckily this production, which was completely stripped of its traditional Greek chorus and all but three scenes, was not a complicated affair. Lyricist and composer, Mark Adamo had presented us with a Lysistrata 2.0 that cut to the humorous core of the original play while inserting myriads of anachronistic expressions, quips, and one-liners, as well as the occasional jab at Greek mythology into the opera. This was a valiant effort and a remarkable opera that has provided a necessary shock of life into an ever predictable routine.

Following the women (which at times reminded me of some wonderfully deranged Sixties girl group, notably the Spartans), the next item that came to my attention was Lysistrata’s set. This was severely uncomplicated and lacked many of the ornate and over-the-top pieces that often clutter the stage. The simplicity of Lysistrata’s set guaranteed that the talent would not up upstaged by it. The only misguidance was the backdrop displaying Athenian ruins. Clearly, in their golden age, the acropolis had not yet crumbled. Whether intentional or not, this elicited laughter from the reviewer and if anything served as one of the many visual jokes present. A rotating centerpiece served as a utilitarian device as each scene shifted almost effortlessly into the next. Several unit structures and steps proved to be useful places for the cast to perform. At one point, the performers were aligned as if perfect Greek figurines on the stage. This was just as pleasing to the eye as had been all of the blocking: the performers covered the stage at various times in a variety of poses, gestures and movements.

The beauty of Mr. Adamo’s adaptation was that the audience lived for the next song, or off-kilter one liner that resulted in uproarious laughter. In this play, where the plot merely consists of Athenian and Spartan wives conspiring to end war by refusing sex to their husbands and lovers one is not concerned with depth of the characters or storyline. The slapstick and overall fatuous spectacle earned the audience’s attention whereas with many operas one is galvanized purely through song. Though, this did not diminish one from respecting the vocal prowess and sublime craft that this stellar cast exuded.

Musically, the first act caught my attention as it sprouted hyper rhythms and percussion that burst and popped almost magically into the theatre. The room was full of colorful and rich palette of sounds that was not merely sodden with strings or conglomeration of masculine horns. In the exuberance of quick trills and rushes on the temple blocks I was reminded of the music of Frank Zappa. They ushered in a playful mood and atmosphere which brilliantly accompanied the performers. There was a refreshing nature to the music as its cheerful poignancy sometimes almost intermingled with the actors but never upstaged them. There were also cherished moments where the singers and orchestra performed in syncopation. It was a shame that this urgency was not sustained throughout the entire performance though.

Strangely, halfway through Lysistrata, we were confronted with a change of pace. The songs slowed as the author focused our attention to Lysia’s (played by a fiery Emily Pulley) soul searching or the confounded love of Nico and Lysia. In comparison to the first half, the music seemed slurred. Where irreverent humor and quick rhythms once ran amok in unison now was followed by character development and heartfelt songs. The audience, having been engaged in a certain fashion for the first half, possibly wasn’t ready for this change of pace. This loss of momentum was truly the only downer of Lysistrata.

Similarly, like Zappa, Mr. Adamo created a simulacrum of a language that was perverse to the ear. The Spartan women sang with additional w’s and z’s inserted into words, e.g., ‘cwotches’. It sounded slightly deranged and not unlike a bad impersonation that yielded raucous laughter many times over. Like Zappa, I can imagine that Mr. Adamo was aiming purely for entertainment value and neither for intellectual or scatological purposes. The crowd, thankfully, found this comical device funny too.

Despite the slackening of the second act, Lysistrata pulled gallantly through to the approval of the audience. Refreshing and creative, bold and energetic, this was a performance and show to remember. Lysistrata peeled away at that gossamer veil between what some consider high and low art forms. In the end, those engaged could decide whether they wanted to take home with them more than just a night of comedy.

Blair Fraipont

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