BWW Review: I Spy Prototype Festival's Chamber Opera, MATA HARI

BWW Review: I Spy Prototype Festival's Chamber Opera, MATA HARI
Tina Mitchell as Mata Hari. Photo: Paua Court

The life and times of the spy-as-femme-fatale, Mata Hari, has always attracted the interest of film and stage artists, from the silent movies and a Greta Garbo take to a notorious musical flop of the '60s and a more recent Frank Wildhorn version. There was recently a major ballet in Amsterdam but somehow the spy has eluded opera as she long evaded authorities. Until now.

The Matt Marks-Paul Peers chamber opera MATA HARI opened New York's fifth Prototype Festival: Opera/Theatre/Now last week (and continues through Saturday the 14th), though I think of it as more of a dance than an opera. Not literally, of course, but dramatically, as a dance of death for the title character and the men (and one woman) who surround her in this compelling, though somewhat messy, work.

The Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari (the stage name of Margaretha Zelle MacLeod) was accused of being a German agent during WWI and executed by firing squad in 1917. Wikipedia reports that her sealed trial and related other documents are scheduled to be declassified by the French Army this year, exactly 100 years after her death by bullets. This work thinks we've already waited long enough and attempts to paint a broader picture of her: as shrewd businesswoman and mother, as well as spy.

In a rather unglamorous portrait, directed by Peers with choreography by Anabella Lenzu, Mata Hari gets to tell her side of the story in a series of flowing flashbacks about significant episodes, and men, in her life, as related to a nun assigned to her in prison as she awaits execution. A first-time librettist, Peers uses a vignette style that works quite well in this context, allowing the title character to flow in and out of the story as she recalls the details that led to her rise and downfall. It does get sidetracked into sentimentality somewhat in treating her motherhood (she passed syphilis to her children, infected by her husband), but gets back on point for the ending.

MATA HARI was developed through the residency program at HERE, one of Prototype's co-producers, and it's the kind of piece we can rely on the festival to bring us with elan, even if it still has a way to go before it's totally cooked.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.