Libretto by Jean Cocteau
The wife - Amy Maples, soprano
The sailor - Max Zander, tenor
His friend - Tom Sitzler, baritone
His father-in-law - Jason Adamo, bass-baritone
Benjamin T. Berman, music director
Kate Lim, piano
Anna Stefanelli, stage director
Maria Balboa, stage manager
The wife runs a bar where the opera opens with her and His friend. The sailor has been gone for 15 years, with The wife waiting faithfully for him to return. His friend says that he admires her ability to be chaste. The wife responds that she would possibly have cheated were her husband present, but since he is gone, she feels it would not be the right thing to do. She also notes that no man has truly inspired her to be unchaste. She reasons that she must not marry His friend, for it would make an awkward situation were The sailor to return. His Father-in-law disagrees with his daughter's views, as she would take The sailor back whether he returns poor or rich.
His friend returns to his shop. His Father-in-law states he thinks His friend and the wife would make a good couple. The two begin to bicker, with His Father-in-law reminding her she is now 40 years old. Outside the bar The sailor can be observed, where he almost enters, but decides not to open the door. He is not sure The wife will recognize him, as no one else has. He instead decides to visit His friend to see what reaction his appearance has.
His friend first turns him away as a drunkard, but his mentioning of having a wife across the street makes his identity known. The sailor is glad he avoided the bar, as his 15 years of travel have changed him greatly. When he asks about The wife, His friend assures him of her faithfulness and love. The sailor then tells His friend that he now had the money to take care of their needs. His friend believes that The sailor should go right away to The wife, but the sailor instead wants to stay the night and meet The wife as stranger, a feeling brought on by his time away.
The following evening, The sailor heads over to the bar and poses as a messenger from her husband. He tells The wife that her husband has returned, but will not come until nighttime, as he is being chased by creditors. The wife says that she too is without money. The sailor does not believe a woman as pretty as his wife could be without money, and His Father-in-law makes a sound in agreement. The wife, however, is overjoyed that her husband will soon be returning to her. She is also told that had The sailor agreed to love a cannibal queen, he may have returned to her rich, but she does not care. The sailor acts as a shipmate of himself and shows pearls as the reward he instead received for becoming that lover. The sailor then asks for a room for the night and is granted his request. His friend is interested to know what happened and makes an excuse to visit by returning a hammer lent to him by The wife the other day. The wife remains silent on the visitor, but as she closes the bar for the night, does see a similarity in the appearance of The sailor to her husband.
As The sailor lies asleep, The wife comes in with the newly returned hammer. The wife raises the hammer and hits The sailor on the head. Then she wants to remove the goods from his pocket. His Father-in-law is woken up by the commotion, and he decides they will carry the body to the well. They plan on telling the neighbor that the visitor left very early, and when His friend then knocks at the door, they keep silent until he leaves. As they make ready to bring the body to the well, The wife sings of the nearing return of her husband.
The synopsis is based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_pauvre_matelot
About the music of Le pauvre matelot
by Benjamin T. Berman
The composer Darius Milhaud was born in 1892. He studied under Dukas, Widor, and Leroux. Many of his formative years were spent abroad. He spent two years in South America as secretary to Claudel, French Minsiter to Brazil. A visit to London in 1920 exposed him to Bily Arnold, and two years later he toured the U.S. The influence of Jazz was a constant presence in his output. Later on, his travels included visits to Russia, Syria, Sardinia, and Spain. Milhaud excelled in short forms, and put forth a series of chamber operas, of which Le pauvre matelot is an exemplar. The very short chamber symphonies are companions and contemporaries to the operas. Like Pergolesi, he was at the forefront of musical taste, and the legacies of both composers shaped musical invention for generations.
It is worth mentioning a few words about Jean Cocteau, to help unlock a musical understanding of Le pauvre matelot. A writer, designer, playwright, artist, and filmmaker, Cocteau supplied the libretto for the opera. Cocteau is best known for his novel Les enfants terribles (1929) and his films “Blood of a Poet” (1930), “Les parents terribles” (1948), “Beauty and the Beast” (1946), and “Orpheus” (1949). Known as the frivolous prince, he was highly experimental and tried on many modes of expression, including surrealism, Avant-garde, and Dada. It wouldn’t be enough to say he was the patron poet of the group les six, modernist composers who worked intimately with Cocteau, including Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, and Darius Milhaud. They drew inspiration from him over many years of close collaboration in films and operas.
Musicologist Christopher Palmer wrote that Milhaud was an “unprincipled exploiter of fashionable oddities” and Le pauvre matelot shows a perfect intersection of this tendency and the Dadaism of the frivolous prince. There are two oddities in particular that are fascinating: the mechanical piano and the Java Waltz. Invented in the late nineteenth century, the Pianola was a product of American invention and a prominent feature of Jazz. Sales peaked in 1924, two years before Le pauvre matelot. It was inexpensive, costing around $250 in the early 20th century, but production was wiped out with the Stock Market crash in 1929. Evidence of this influence in the opera includes ostinato; repetition of short, two-measure cells; planing and other elemental duplications; harmonic complexity over top a fabric of metrical simplicity; and the exploitation of lack of clarity in dark colors. The inexorability of strict tempo, so often a feature of the music of Les six, is captured perfectly by the image of a mechanical piano. And it is crucial that in a performance of this opera, there be absolutely no rubato, as that would distract from the inexorable approach of tragedy in all its sleek absurdity.
The Java Waltz is a French variation of the waltz, popular in the 1920’s. It is simple and fast with a bouncy step. Its physicality is easy and sensual, and fitted to a small dance hall, and therefore less grand than a traditional waltz. The partners stand very close, with the men holding their partners’ buttocks. The introduction to the first act of Le pauvre matelot is a Java Waltz, meant to sound as if played on a mechanical piano:
Contrasting keys are pitted against each other in Le pauvre matelot in another stroke of surrealism. Though the opera starts and ends in the key of C, all of the intervening material is rooted in competing tonalities. C Major is pitted against C-sharp Major throughout, which colors the opera with rich and stinging dissonance, and represents the distortion of truth that is at the root of the misunderstanding that drives the wife to commit her act of violence. The opening of the second act is a wonderful example of the polytonality that defines much of Milhaud’s music.
Quartal triads and major chords are the simple building blocks. Yet harmonic darkness permeates this tonal chaos. Milhaud’s genius is revealed in his ability to combine these simple elements into an amazingly complex and beautifully disturbing atmosphere in just a few bars.
Likewise, Cocteau excelled at simple phrases, small words, pithy sayings that sound like common aphorisms but are newly forged. One thinks of “Beauty and the Beast,” in which La belle says to La bête in a moment of tenderness, “j’ai peur” (“I am afraid”…the sailor also says to his friend when he returns home, unrecognized), “mais j’aime avoir peur avec vous” (“but I like being afraid, with you”). The verbal surrealism underscores a psychological truth of the character’s condition. Like “Beauty and the Beast,” the characters in Le pauvre matelot are nameless, as is the female character portraying death in “Orpheus.” This anonymity, like the effect of the mechanical piano and the low brow Java waltz, democratizes the drama. The audience is meant to connect immediately with the action, personally. Cocteau’s diction is terse. Milhaud is perfectly matched, with his affinity for simple major chords. Both poet and composer delight in very short sentences, with non-flowery, anti-poetic text. While other poets might go on at length about the human condition, Cocteau packs simple truths into a phrase like “je suis l’homme le plus cache du monde” (“I am the most hidden man in the world”) and “l’habitude rend aveugle” (“Habit makes you blind”). Milhaud’s repetitive, motoric music blossoms on this Dadaist canvas.
Any musician will tell you, repetition is an aid for comprehension – both Pergolesi and Milhaud understood this. For Pergolesi, this goes beyond the traditional da capo aria: he anticipated the Classical era with a balanced structure that recalls melodic ideas and uses unifying harmony to point to developing dramatic elements. And Milhaud took every chance he could to duplicate melodic cells, as if to be certain the audience could hear it right, so to speak. Ostinatos, verbatim repetitions, the brutal hammering of repeated keys, display all the contrasting glory of characters and situations. A tool that both composers also used exceeding well is harmony: at times to outline a series of affects, at others, to unsettle expectations. Milhaud’s bright final melody is downright eerie, as they accompany the wife as she slowly drags her husband’s dead body to the cistern. The dramatis personae also have unsettling tools at their disposal. Whereas the wife uses the hammer, a perfunctory tool, to achieve her will, Serpina uses the mute Vespone, a living person, as an object to manipulate Uberto. In some ways, this latter manipulation is more insidious. The tools of operatic drama are at the artists’ disposal, for the pleasure and edification of the audience. And its most powerful tool is melody. Both of these operas will send you out with a gift as tangible as the hammer: tunes which will continue to strike on the ear as you leave the theater this evening.
Bios (in alphabetical order)
Jason Adamo is a bass-baritone who has sung frequently with the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey and Eastern Opera of New Jersey in roles such as Falke in Die Fledermaus, Dulcamara in L’Elisir d’Amore, and the title roles of Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro. Most recently, Jason was seen in Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey’s performance of J.S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata. This summer, he will sing with Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble in New York as Il Tempo in Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria by Monteverdi.
Amy Maples A soprano with “impeccable poise and time-stopping expressivity” (Rigoletto 2015), Amy sings with companies across the US such as Opera Colorado in her home state, Piedmont Opera, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Kentucky, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and the Bangor Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Lucas Richman. Specializing in all things florid, roles include Cunegonde in Candide, Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lucy in The Telephone, Thérèse in Les Mamelles de Tiresias, Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, Dorinda in Orlando, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Cosette in Les Miserables, and Christine in The Phantom of the Opera. Amy received her MM in Voice from Florida State University.
Tom Sitzler, baritone, has been capturing audiences with his warm, generous voice and convincing stage presence since 2009, when he made his professional debut as the Old Gypsy in Il Trovatore with Union Avenue Opera. Most notable roles include Escamillo (Carmen) and Leporello (Don Giovanni) with Boulder Opera, Germont (La Traviata) and Scarpia (Tosca) with Painted Sky Opera, and Prophet (Dark Sisters) with Opera Fayetteville. He has sung the bass solos for Handel’s Messiah, the Verdi Requiem, the Mozart Requiem, the Faure Requiem, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Upcoming performances include Golaud (Pelleas et Melisandre) and Karl Baum (Liebovar). Learn more at www.tomsitzler.com
Max Zander, "Athletically comic" and "strong-voiced" tenor, Max Zander is thrilled to be returning to HCODC, after singing Der Erzähler in Der Mond, and giving a recital earlier in the pandemic. This season, he has been seen as Bardolfo in Falstaff with Berkshire Opera Festival and as Heurtebise in Philip Glass's Orphée as a guest artist with Louisiana State University. Other career highlights include Bardolfo in Falstaff with Sir Bryn Terfel and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Pong in Turandot with Cedar Rapids Opera, Guillot de Morfontaine in Manon with Opera Idaho, Caius in Falstaff with Opera Saratoga, Tamino in Die Zauberflöte with Opera Iowa, and the Witch in Hansel and Gretel with Bel Cantanti Opera.
Benjamin T. Berman, tenor, organist, harpsichordist, and conductor, is Music Director of Hub City Opera and Dance Company, the Presbyterian Church of Bound Brook, and of the Highland Park Community Chorus. Ben's first live major performance since the Covid-19 pandemic was a collaboration between HPCC and Rise Up Chorus, in which he conducted Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Metuchen. A variety of pursuits has brought him to play harpsichord with period instrument ensemble La Fiocco; serve on the board as vice president, music director, and founding member of the Hub City Opera and Dance Company; and work as accompanist at his alma mater: for the Rutgers Queens Chorale. Benjamin enjoys an active performing career in the region, performing with Opera Philadelphia, West Jersey Chamber Music Society, Makhelat Hamercaz, Choral Arts Society, and Vocala, and was honored to sing in the Czech Republic in 2018. As Music Director of HCODC, he has conducted the operas Der Mond by Carl Orff and Goyescas by Enrique Granados, and worked as music director for the innovative virtual programs Un\Rooted and Masks. Ben is a member of AGMA, ACDA, NATS, and NYSTA.
Kate Lim, born and raised in South Korea, Mrs. Lim came to the United States to pursue graduate degrees after getting her bachelor’s degree at Sook-Myung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. She received her master’s degree in Piano Performance at the Univ. of MI – Ann Arbor in 3 semesters, with numerous scholarships and assistantships, and she moved to New Jersey to attend DMA program at Rutgers University. While in the degree program, she was a piano faculty at Rutgers Extension Division as well as a distinguished accompanist for a Children’s choir, end-of-semester recitals, and many of summer music camps. Upon graduation, Dr. Lim was the recipient of the prestigious Irene Elm award for her excellent research and performance. She made her orchestral debut in Vienna with the Vienna Int’l Orchestra in 2010, and staged at Carnegie Weill Hall in winter, 2012, at Debussy’s 150th Anniversary Celebration concert. As a winner of concerto competitions, she performed with the South Orange Symphony Orchestra in 2011 and the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra in 2012. In summer 2013, she served at Castleton Music Festival as a staff pianist for Opera singers, and in 2012 she also joined a summer music program ‘Rutgers in Vienna’ as an accompanist. In 2018, she was invited to perform an annual Int’l piano festival (XXXV Festival Internacional de Piano) gala concert at Bucaramanga, and a music festival (XXIII Festival de Música Ciudad de Cucuta) in Cucuta, Colombia. Dr. Lim is currently working as a staff pianist at Rutgers University, a church music director, and a piano teacher.
Anna Stefanelli, Stage Director – Ms. Stefanelli received a Bachelor of Arts in both Drama (with a concentration on directing and playwriting) and English from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. She also holds a Masters degree from New York University in English and American literature and is currently studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Opera Studies from Rose Bruford College of Performing Arts in England.. Stefanelli, who is also a professional opera singer, has studied operatic movement, staging, and interpretation with Ira Schiff, Elaine Malbin and Richard Crittenden, and with Maestro Vincent La Selva at the Juilliard School of Music. She was the stage director for the 2019 Hub City Opera and Dance production of Goyescas, and assistant director of Hub City Opera and Dance’s 2018 production of Der Mond. She was assistant director to the Green Room Theater production of Loot! in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she also directed Waiting for Godot. Stefanelli is also the creator and director of the children's musical theater group, The Magic Black Box Players, as well as owning two companies, A&R Artists and A&R Music Education (offering voice and piano instruction). She has directed musical theater and opera for La Bella Voce Opera Ensemble as well as for her own company, A&R Artists. Stefanelli has also directed and produced Hub City Opera children's opera, We're Building a City, as well as co-wrote and produced the Opera in the Park program at Highland Park, NJ. She is also the creator and principal artist of an opera program for children, Opera Fun, which she has presented to over a thousand children in the NJ school system as well as a lecture performance series for adults entitled, A Short History of Italian Opera.
Grant funding has been provided by the Middlesex County Board for Chosen Freeholders through a grant award from the Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund.
Program funded by Middlesex County, a partner of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.