The Maids

Positively chilling

Nicholas Muni’s Double Bill, The Emperor of Atlantis and The Maids, shocked, surprised, disturbed and ultimately gripped the Cincinnati Opera audience Thursday night in Music Hall. No doubt the avant-garde production, which included a moment of full frontal nudity, will inspire controversy, particularly among the dozens who left early, and the many others in the crowd of 2,253 who fled as soon as the curtain fell.

Yet it was an artistic coup for the company’s artistic director Muni, whose reputation for pushing boundaries reached a new apex in this bold, provocative production. A superb cast of singing actors and excellent conducting from the well-regarded Patrick Summers made this an extraordinary evening of high drama.

[…] After intermission, Peter Bengtson’s The Maids, in its North American premiere, was positively chilling. Based on the Jean Genet play, Les Bonnes, the opera concerns a real-life, 1933 French crime in which two maids murdered their mistress. In the opera, Madame (sung by Stephanie Novacek) avoids death by poisoned tea, and a sister takes her place.

It was Hitchcock meets Arnold Schoenberg. Bengtson’s modernist music, which traveled from 1940s Hollywood to 12-tone, perfectly fit the schizophrenic nature of sisters Claire and Solange. Lundy (Claire) and McHardy (Solange) were called upon to speak, sing Queen of the Night-style coloratura and perform Sprechstimme (speech song) as they journeyed between heightened flights of madness and mere neuroticism.

The psychological thriller opened with a video – Madame in bed with her lover, while a maid scrubbed the floor. The lush, post-romantic overture set the film-noir tone wonderfully. Instead of a bedroom, Muni’s concept was a clinical bathroom, where Claire – role-playing as Madame – was luxuriating in the tub.

The acting – calculating, hysterical and hinting at lesbianism – was seamless with the music. Lundy tackled the difficult vocal leaps that recalled Schoenberg’s Erwartung spectacularly, as she exited the tub and wiggled into her lingerie.

McHardy projected both mournfulness and anger in Solange’s lament, No one loves us. Another musical high point was Claire’s Dream Aria, which had magical flourishes in the orchestra.

The climax came as Claire drank her tea, and the action froze for a full minute before the curtain fell.

In the pit, 23 members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played with precision and nuance, superbly led by Summers.

  • Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer

Grade: A Breathtaking pacing and crafting of suspense

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