Opera Review: Lysistrata: An Ancient Story Fit For The Modern Ear

Almost 2500 years ago, the playwright Aristophanes titillated and amused the Athenian theater-going crowd with Lysistrata, one of the first—and still most intriguing—explorations of the inherent power struggle of the genders and the enduring human folly of waging war while yearning for peace.

Seven years ago, American composer Mark Adamo, fresh from his triumph as the composer of an operatic version of Little Women that immediately earned a prominent niche in the repertoire, took on Aristophanes’ fundamental idea—that women could end war by withholding sex—to create the opera Lysistrata, which premiered in Houston in 2005 and was soon after produced by New York City Opera in 2006.

Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth audiences got their first viewing of a piece that, while probably not destined to be performed as frequently as the opera Little Women (face it, millions love Alcott’s novel, while, well, hundreds admire Aristophanes’ play), does everything an opera is supposed to do, and does it in an innovative and, equally important, entertaining way.

The libretto, in which Adamo drew on Aristophanes’ basic premise and principal characters, is in an impressive literary accomplishment in itself. Most significantly, Adamo has created, in the title character, a complex yet easily comprehended operatic heroine of the first rank—a woman who, like Tosca or Minnie, is believable because she learns, and grows, and transforms, and who finally comes to grips with the world as it really is. Adamo’s Lysistrata (who goes by the name Lysia for most of the opera) first appears as lust-driven and self-centered, but, almost in spite of herself, becomes devoted to a higher calling of promoting peace. Even when she personally falters, the ideal triumphs. In the end, in a beautiful, soaring aria, she realizes the personal sacrifice that those who devote themselves to public service experience—that lust for power, desire to serve, and ultimate self-abnegation are hopelessly intertwined.

And Adamo’s sheer command of words is, at times, astounding. Switching briefly to an elegiac mode in Act II for a roll call of fallen loved ones, he achieves a level of metaphor any poet would envy. Adamo’s musical accomplishment is hardly less impressive. He derives energy and impetus from mild dissonance and a glittering, intensely colorful orchestration in the recitatives, and moves into a broadly lyrical mode for the ensembles and arias, relying largely on the sonorous harmonic idiom one associates with the mainstream modern American composers of the middle years of the twentieth century.

A few of the contemporary references and obvious gags in Adamo’s Lysistrata may eventually become anachronistic, but, surprisingly, some of the bawdiest humor in this very bawdy opera are straight from Aristophanes—in particular, the epidemic of priapism in Act II, which, though it at first looks like something out of late night cable, is right there in the original Greek play. The oldest jokes are the dirty jokes, folks.

TCU-trained soprano Ava Pine, who just keeps wowing regional and international audiences, earned another laurel in this title role. Soprano Ashley Kerr and baritone Michael Mayes (the latter a native of Cut and Shoot,Texas) were striking as the secondary love interest, in a subplot lifted whole out of Aristophanes. Mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson was frighteningly formidable as Lampito, the chief of the Spartan women, matched by bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico as Leonidas, the Spartan general. Tenor Scott Scully provided an appropriately complex portrayal of Nico, the Athenian general and Lysistrata’s love interest.

Joe Illick conducted the Fort Worth Symphony in this relentlessly colorful score. Richard Kagey and Murell Horton provided appropriately whimsical comic-opera scenery and costumes, across which the cast, directed by David Gately with his always perfect sense of humor, moved and aimed unfailingly toward a finale in which Adamo, like Verdi at the close of Falstaff, reminds us that, with all our failings, it is a good thing to be human.

Photo: Ellen Appel