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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.

Marks' smart score covers a variety of styles, with engaging forays into rock and standard opera, thoughtfully allowing a difference in the way the characters are treated. I'm sure that Marks and Peers had their reasons for leaving the title character without any music, but I thought it was a missed opportunity, despite the dramatic effectiveness of Tina Mitchell in the title role. Without question, Mitchell gave a riveting performance, whether as prisoner or femme fatale, but I wonder whether it could be taken up a notch or two had the narrative progressed in song. (I assume that she does sing as well, since, according to the program, she was a principal understudy [sic] for the Met's Kentridge production of Berg's LULU.)

Conductor David Bloom and his small, diverse ensemble (electric guitar, piano, violin and accordion) did wonderful work in bringing out the nuances of the score-of which there were many-sometimes reminiscent of tango as the men encircled her.

Five excellent singers played the men in her life: Tomas Cruz, whose skills range from pop and jazz to opera and new music, brought an arresting presence to the Russian Vadime and voice of Mata Hari's dead son Norman, while tenor Daniel Neer was a vivid Capt. Ladoux, who tempted her into the game of "I spy."

Bass Steve Hrycelak was appropriately nasty as Mata Hari's husband Rudolf MacLeod (less so as Colonel Denvignes) and baritone Jeffrey Gavett was effective with the Sprechstimme vocal lines of Capt. Bouchardon, the interrogator. Joshua Jeremiah's sleek baritone, as her German contact Col. Von Kalle, enlivened his stage presence. Some of the best music, however, went to the agile soprano of Mary Mackenzie as Sister Leonide, who begins as the bane of the spy's existence and ends being her ally.

The production, designed by Neal Wilkinson with lighting by Lucrecia Briceno and costumes by Oana Botez, was simple but effective, though David Jonathan Palmer's video projections didn't always register as they zipped by on the curtains used for scene changes. But this was a minor quibble for a pretty gripping 90 minutes.


There will be further performances of MATA HARI on January 11-14 at 7 PM, at HERE, 145 6th Avenue, New York, NY 10013, entry on Dominick St., 1 block south of Spring Street. For information, click.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow