The Maids

Grade: A

To paraphrase: Enough’s enough, too much is nasty and way too much is just what you expect of opera. That’s dandy when the troupe’s muchness of emotion, gesture and performance and the profligate grandeur of its productions are focused on music and lyrics designed to flourish when awash in dramatic excess.

After intermission came the North American premiere of composer Peter Bengtson’s The Maids, adapted in angular, lashing, lunging, daggers of sound from Jean Genet’s play of the same name – all of it played and sung with enormous energy, clarity and certainty. The composer and director Muni translated the libretto into English from Ragnar Lyth’s Swedish original. Herein, operatic excess works with – not against – the material, heightening it, not swamping it. No conceivable production extravagance, musical overload or performance overkill could swamp the emotional excesses of this tale with its disturbing allegorical resonances of class warfare.

Two maids, sisters Solange (Allyson McHardy) and Claire (Nancy Allen Lundy), tend to the home, life and bodily functions of Madame (Stephanie Novacek). Their mistress-servant interface is every love-hate, anger-despair, disdain-envy, palm-beneath-the-stiletto-heel relationship, only magnified to the thousandth power by the accusatory audacity of Genet’s thinking. These maids hate their mistress with a hatred that is as abiding and as self-righteous as it is impossible to explain in rational terms. It is the old, envious, ingrained, womb-instilled fear, distrust and hatred that “have nots” and “haves” share.

While Madame is out for the evening, usually with her lover, called only Monsieur, the maids pass their time in elaborate, shouting, humiliating role plays in which they murder her. This night, however, things are different. They intend to go through with it. However, Madame and Monsieur are not out and about at some idle pleasure. The maids have betrayed him anonymously to the police. He has been arrested and Madame is at the police station, attempting to see him and dramatizing her self-pity in a thoroughly operatic manner. Before she can return Monsieur is suddenly released on bond. He calls and leaves the message that he will meet Madame at a nightclub.

She returns. The maids do not immediately pass along her lover’s message but rather attempt to off her with a massive dose of barbiturates dissolved in her tea and served up in her finest china. Events intervene and Madame races away to meet Monsieur in a flurry of dramatic relief that is every bit as self-absorbed as was her earlier, highly dramatized pain. Left to themselves, the maids slide back into their characters. They take up their role play again. One hands the other the cup of poisoned tea, the allegorical implication being perhaps that ultimately the excesses of the “haves” set the “have nots” at each other’s throats with insane, murderous intent.

Director Muni and designer Lyne see sufficient mirroring between the conflict in the two tales to set The Maids on much the same set as The Emperor of Atlantis. That large room floating above the battlefield now becomes a high-tech, 22nd century bathroom that would make the folks at Kohler envious. At center is a marble tub from which, at the opera’s beginning, one of the maids rises naked. Yes, bath time, buck-ass naked. There’s an enormous flat panel TV and a magic wand which controls it, the lights and translucent blinds that raise and lower silently in front of two-story high glass walls. (This Madame is a “have” with a vengeance.) Whether the class conflict of The Maids truly resonates with the true and bloody conflict allegorized in Emperor of Atlantis is a matter for conjecture. Probably not.

Jean Genet’s mastery of dramatic excess and the allegorical potential it offered exploded into world consciousness alongside the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s with novels such as the scandalous Our Lady of the Flowers, a brutally frank memoir with philosophic divertissements, A Thief’s Journal, and such plays as the widely produced political allegory set in a brothel, The Balcony, and The Maids. A thief, a convicted felon, a homosexual prostitute, a poet of sexual extravagance and a philosopher of political mayhem, Genet had been jailed for life when a coterie of influential French intellectuals petitioned for and secured his release. Genet’s words and thoughts make themselves humidly at home in the excesses of grand opera.

Several related events surround these Atlantis/Maids performances. CCM is presenting readings of a play about the creation of Atlantis. And over at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, they are presenting an intense, well-clarified staged reading of Genet’s play as he intended it, with all three female characters played by males, adding a few more curious levels of allegory. Ruben Polendo, a New York-based writer-director, staged the piece with Todd Almond (to be remembered at ETC as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as Claire, Sam Womelsdorf as Solange and Bruce Cromer (memorable at ETC in the Bed Among the Lentils one-acts and as a demented psychiatrist in last fall’s Blue/Orange) as Madame. Whether acted or sung, it’s difficult to be too excessive with this material. However, there is a difference between over-the-top and overwrought that the actors, particularly Almond, don’t always observe.

There will be one more reading at ETC at 2 pm on June 26, offering an opportunity to immerse in The Maids with a matinee of the play and an evening of operatic muchness. Grade: A.

  • Tom McElfresh, CityBeat Cincinnati

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