Gotham Chamber opened its fourteenth season with an exciting double bill of works by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Since the New York City Opera gave its swansong with a performance of Anna Nicole in Fall 2013, this is Gotham’s first season as the Big Apple’s second opera company. The pocket-opera’s entertaining production proved that an opera company doesn’t need to be the biggest in town to be the most innovative.

Martinů's <i>Alexandre bis</i> © Richard Termine
Martinů's Alexandre bis
© Richard Termine

Since artistic director Neal Goren founded Gotham in 2001, he has always been committed to exploring almost forgotten favorites as well as promoting the creation of new works. More than ten years ago, Goren performed a double bill of Martinů’s Hlas lesa and Les larmes du couteau to sold out audiences. The company’s current double bill features Martinů’s s Alexandre bis and Comedy on the Bridge.

Though Goren has selected interested repertoire consistently over the years, his production values have varied widely. For example, his site-specific productions – including Cavalli in a nightclub, Haydn in a planetarium, and Catán in a cherry orchard – have sacrificed quality for novelty. While I attended Gotham’s current Martinů double-bill primarily to hear these rarely performed works, I left the theater after Tuesday’s opening night performance impressed with the company’s efforts and hopeful for their future.

Each one-act opera featured the same quartet of singers – soprano Jenna Siladie, tenor Jason Slayden, baritone Jarrett Ott, and bass Joseph Beutel. Mezzo-sopranos Abigail Fischer and Cassandra Zoé Velasco supplemented the casts of Comedy and Alexandre respectively. Just as the singers doubled in each opera, so did the set.

Of the two performances, Alexandre was the more successful. In the story, Alexandre fools his wife Armande by shaving his beard and posing as his cousin visiting from out of town. Alexandre successfully seduces Armande in disguise, only later to chide her for her seemingly infidelity, and because she gives in to another seducer, Oskar. Throughout, the maid Philomène and a singing portrait of Alexandre preside over and comment upon the action.

Slayden, Ott, and Beutel rose to the occasion in this absurdist comedy, which Goren describes in his program note as Martinů’s answer to Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Fully committed to director James Marvel’s purposefully cartoonish stage direction, these three gentlemen stole the show without making vocal sacrifices. Slayden was hilarious as the libidinous Oskar, dressed in a mid-century men’s bathing suit bedecked with a codpiece. Not only was Beutel’s bass robust, but his French diction was the most impressive of the entire cast. In his delivery of several spoken monologues, you could tell that he was hip to the humor of the piece and truly savored the opportunity to inhabit this bizarre role.

Martinů's <i>Alexandre bis</i> © Richard Termine
Martinů's Alexandre bis
© Richard Termine

Velasvo was charming as the maid, and impressed with her warm yet agile mezzo-soprano, particularly when she appears as the goddess of marriage in the guilt-ridden Armande’s dream sequence. Siladie, in the role of Armande, seemed less comfortable as a singing actress then her colleagues on stage, though her singing was pleasant. The character she created did not seem to fit in the world of the show – one part Ballet Russes, one part Three Stooges – but perhaps will improve in subsequent performances.

The mostly black and white production of Alexandre itself was stylish, indeed. There were a few select pops of color to storytelling – a pink feather duster for the coquettish maid, red costumes for two infernal figures in the dream sequence, and, of course, a red dress to symbolize Armande’s sexual liberation. The set consisted primarily of a surreal couch that stretch across the entire stage, and even bent at a right angle to ascend to the top of the proscenium.

Martinů's <i>Comedy on the Bridge</i> © Richard Termine
Martinů's Comedy on the Bridge
© Richard Termine

The pit fall of Camerson Anderson’s set design was the bold birch-tree print that covered everything from the backdrop to the furniture to the costumes. Though the print itself was tasteful, because even Armande’s dress was made of the same print, everything became a bit too matchy-matchy. And, because the same backdrops were used in Comedy On the Bridge, all that birch became boring as the evening went on.

Comedy, in part because of the static set and in part because of the piece itself, was less enjoyable than Alexandre. In this short opera, five people find themselves stuck on a bridge, trapped on either side by two obstinate soldiers. Though the humor of Comedy is similar to Alexandre, the characters in Comedy are more relatable and less absurd. The constant mugging to the audience detracted from the more human aspects of the story and made me feel a bit trapped, at times.

Gotham’s work is always worth seeing, even if only because of the repertoire they explore. But, their current double bill has much more to offer than just the chance to hear these somewhat obscure works. Though the production isn’t perfect and the casting is a bit uneven, Gotham’s double bill offers fresh ideas lacking from other productions currently being staged in town.