We Wuv Merlin
Gluck’s operatic utopian farce surprises and delights

Saturday’s opening night performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s L’Ile de Merlin, Ou Le Monde Renverse (Merlin’s Island, or the World Upended) lived up to just about every positive expectation. The frothy faux-French confection will never top the operatic charts in anybody’s book, but it’s prime festival fodder, an American premiere of a light-hearted satirical romp that takes nothing seriously, including the delightfully unpretentious music.

Remember, this piece is a German musician’s takeoff on 18th-century French “vaudeville,” a primitive form of folk-operetta built on common street-banter and banal popular tunes. Sure, he cleaned it up a bit — after all, he wrote it as a lowbrow diversion for the Austrian court. And the “heroes” — as in most social satires of the day — are the era’s stock buffoons, French-style: Pierrot and Scapin.

But here, they’re more like Beavis and Butthead. Certain unmistakable popular modern mannerisms, nicely aped by the singers, make that connection clear. These guys are ordinary oafs whose thoughts seldom stray beyond their next meal or roll in the hay. Shipwrecked on Merlin’s island, the zany plot follows their struggle to come to terms with an upside-down mirror of their own Parisian world. In Merlin’s strange utopian realm, couples are invariably faithful, the rich marry only the poor, and ethically upright lawyers resolve disputes with a roll of the dice. Or so it would seem.

Our unlikely heroes blunder their way through what rings eerily like an Orwellian indoctrination: they’re tempted with food and females, and likewise fed the party line from paradise. But the audience soon begins to smell the rat, especially when an oddly familiar visage reappears in various guises and turns out to be Merlin himself. Andrew Lieberman’s sparse, squeaky-clean set could be any modern professional’s waiting room. Or any cult messiah’s innocuous-looking indoctrination chamber. And Merlin’s true colors emerge at the last, as he bends his own rules for the sake of a couple of fresh converts. Cults tend to thrive on stupid people, eh?.

The music is clever, delightful, and well-made. But Gluck probably never thought of it as an immortal effort, and neither should we. The tunes are often simple and earthy, with rather little of the conventional florid operatic affectations of the day. But it’s definitely engaging and worth experiencing. One of the remarkable things about this production is how it blends modern lowbrow musical styles with their older counterparts, while maintaining an even flow of populist spirit that any musical person can trace. For awhile, near the end, Merlin even rolls around on the floor, playing blues harmonica and bellowing like some drugged-out rocker. But somehow, it all works.

We get oodles of slapstick chicanery, from both singers and players. There’s no harpsichord or fortepiano supporting the recitatives here. One of the singers (Kevin Burdette, as the Notary), functions as kind of the overall emcee, while doing double duty as the keyboardist, playing mostly modern sounds on a synthesizer. Some of his keyboard doodles sound like the original Parisian street tunes that Gluck tapped; others are more modern musical clichés. He also tootles here and there on a pennywhistle, and offers amplified megaphone moments to several characters as they purvey the “party line.” There are lots of other strange sounds: some vocal, and others I couldn’t place.

Opening night performances were uniformly fine and mostly very funny. The only slight problems were a few fleeting disconnects between singers and the pit that’ll no doubt tighten up as the festival run progresses. Tenor Richard Troxell portrayed a rather sleazy Merlin and showed the full range of his comedic instincts in several supporting roles. What with the various vocal shadings he gave his assorted characters, I wondered what his “conventional” operatic voice sounds like. Keith Phares (Pierrot) and Eugene Brancoveanu (Scapin) portrayed very convincing dunderheads, on top of solid vocal competence. Monica Yunus and Amanda Squitieri warbled sweetly as Argentine and Diamantine, the fair ladies that are both bait and betrothed to our heroes. Constance Hauman was a sexy and saucy Hippocratine, the lady physician. But mind you, no singer would think of any of these as career-making roles.

Maestro Harry Bicket drew wonderfully crisp and clear playing from his Spoleto Festival players, and kept the music moving at a brisk pace. Stage direction — abetted by striking set design and costumes — was wonderfully wacky, as one would expect from Christopher Alden in this sort of piece. An ingenious revolving wall-panel and a robot-cart made for entertaining entrances and exits. Sudden color-shifts and other startling lighting effects enhanced the surreal atmosphere.

Opera at Spoleto does it yet again, offering us a level of innovative diversion and musical delight that very few fans get to experience. And opera — from whatever era — offers more than just beguiling theater in musical trappings. Opera bears particularly potent testimony to the constancy of human nature, be it expressed via tears or laughter. And the nonstop grins, giggles, and guffaws (and the hearty final ovation) from Dock Street’s capacity opening-night crowd left no doubt that they’d been very well-entertained.

L’Ile De Merlin • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$130 • (1 hour 45 min.) • May 28, June 6 at 3:30 p.m.; May 31, June 2, 7 at 8 p.m. • Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. • 579-3100

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