Composer Whitney George’s opera One Night of Excess premiered on March 8th at The National Sawdust, one of New York City’s premiere venues for new music. The production was co-presented by George’s ensemble, The Curiosity Cabinet, and Opera on Tap. The opera was an overall success, and captured the sensual nature of Gamiani, the plot’s source material. Published in 1833, Gamiani, a novel attributed to Alfred de Musset, created a furor when it was first released and became an erotic bestseller before disappearing into relative obscurity.
The story of the opera concerns three characters: the voyeuristic Baron, the naive Sophie, and Countess Gamiani, the eponymous heroine of Musset’s novel and George’s opera. The opera begins at one of Gamiani’s parties. From there, the drama unfolds as the Baron voyeuristically watches Gamiani from his window as she seduces Sophie. The Baron makes his presence known to them and enters the bedroom. Gamiani and Sophie share horrific and debaucherous stories of rape and masturbation. The Baron then shares his story of sexual ecstasy. Then, all three make love with a religious fervor. Then, the Baron takes Sophie to his house to make love. Gamiani comes behind them and confronts her over the Baron. The Baron, in a moment of lust, proclaims Gamiani to be a sorceress. This makes the Baron convinced that Sophie is only true to Gamiani, and he smothers her to death. Gamiani enters and proclaims the Baron committed this sin, "in the name of love."
The opera is cast into 13 scenes that make a cohesive whole thanks to George’s consistent harmonic and rhythmic style. Her textures are well orchestrated, and the sparse accompaniments throughout many scenes allowed for the singers’ words to come across in a clear manner. Johnny Call’s libretto was full of simple language that clearly communicated the story. Much of George’s music evoked Shostakovich, the tango, and musical theater. The highlights of the work were the Baron’s Tango and the finale. Both sections effectively portrayed the psychology of the Baron, and explored the trance-like ecstasy that Gamiani induced on him when he watched her. These moments of excess were musically contrasted with lithe textures that provided dramatic momentum which carried the piece forward.
I found George’s setting of the text to be entirely unexpected. A story where erotic elements abound would immediately call to mind the excesses of the fin de siècle and the music of Richard Strauss. However, the lack of any musical excess and the sparse textures of George’s accompaniments created a wholly unique and different viewpoint of the story. This was directly correlated to the loud and refreshing feminist message of the work. An example of this message was the casting of three sopranos.
The roles of the Baron, Sophie, and Gamiani were portrayed by sopranos Joy Jones, Sara Noble, and Heather Michele Meyer, respectively. The composer’s choice to make the Baron a trouser role made much sense because it paid homage to the historical characters that inspired the novel. Countess Gamiani was reportedly based on the French novelist George Sand. George’s decision to write the role of the Baron for soprano was an acknowledgement of Sand’s cross dressing, which she did throughout her life for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, the decision to make the Baron a breeches role effectively blurred the lines of the gender binary and made the gender of the Baron sexually ambiguous despite the usage of ‘he’ and ‘him’ pronouns.
Of the three sopranos, Joy Jones was the stand out. Her vocal prowess was directly linked to her dramatic portrayal of the Baron and all of his sexual pleasures. Her use of parlando for dramatic effect was well done and tastefully executed, and her interpretation of the “Baron’s Tango” was sultry and full of excess in a most delightful way.
George conducted her ensemble from the podium, and elegantly led the musicians through the score with great aplomb. Each musician took off an article of clothing at the end of each scene until they were almost nude at the end of the opera. This stage direction complimented the sultriness of the stage action amongst the trio of lovers. Daniel Fay’s understated production allowed for George’s music to take front and center. George’s narration at the beginning and combination of dance forms with arioso-like scenes created a thoroughly engrossing theatrical work.