When On Site Opera decided to mount the US première of Darius Milhaud’s La mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), it needed a strong concept. The opera has had few champions since its creation in 1966. Today, its reputation still creaks beneath the weight of an overwrought plot and orchestral score. Unfortunately, this production did little to rehabilitate the work’s reputation. On Site Opera is generally known for inventive, site-specific productions in surprising NYC venues. But the particular venue where this was staged – The Garage on Manhattan’s Far West Side – added little to the opera’s sordid story.

Jennifer Black (Rosine) © On Site Opera
Jennifer Black (Rosine)
© On Site Opera

Audiences were greeted by a stark, warehouse-like room, complete with haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes. A program note stated that this was intended to “echo the isolation and broken qualities of the characters” and represent “the quickly-declining world of the Almaviva family.” Mostly it just looked like the representation of an opera on a budget.

The Guilty Mother is the final installment of On Site Opera’s three-year Figaro Project, featuring obscure adaptations of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy. Shunning Mozart and Rossini, the company previously presented Giovanni Paisiello’s rendition of The Barber of Seville and Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro. The Guilty Mother is strikingly morose compared to the spirit of its predecessors.

The plot also feels needlessly complex. Twenty years have passed since we last visited the Almaviva home. Both the Count and his wife now have illegitimate children, Leon and Florestine, who (surprise, surprise) have fallen in love. The Countess, played capably by soprano Jennifer Black, appeared much more distraught over her indiscretion than her husband was over his. In her first scene, we found her in an evening gown, collapsed on a shabby cot beside bottles of pharmaceutical bottles and an empty wine glass. The set’s mixing of eras and wealth indicators was confusing, at best.

Amy Owens (Florestine) © On Site Opera
Amy Owens (Florestine)
© On Site Opera

The opera’s central drama revolves around Countess Almaviva’s guilty conscience, which precipitates a sacrificial marriage of convenience between the innocent Florestine and the Count’s former secretary, the conniving Bégearss. Baritone Adam Cannedy in the role of Count Almavivia had the unenviable task of delivering an extended exposition at the opera’s outset. Though his voice was rich and robust, his delivery lacked nuance – mostly because he seemed preoccupied with hacking through the dense thicket of Milhaud’s score.

From its very first notes, the orchestra remained mired in a polytonal tangle. Milhaud’s score, which was composed toward the end of his prolific career, suffers from an overabundance of repetitive musical ideas. Its overall character sounded like a march to war. This martial mood could have reflected poignantly on the gloom hanging over the marriage of Florestine and Bégearss – if it were expressed in moderation. In excess, however, it quickly grew tiresome. The excellent musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) tried their best, to be sure. But the punishing dissonance and drumbeats cast a cloud over any interesting moments, such as the fanciful, carousel-like figures in the woodwinds.

Marcus DeLoach (Figaro) and Matthew Burns (Bégearss) © On Site Opera
Marcus DeLoach (Figaro) and Matthew Burns (Bégearss)
© On Site Opera

The performers were the production’s greatest asset. The singers exhibited almost uniformly lovely projection and tone. If only competition from the orchestral score hadn’t compromised their expressiveness – as when it forced baritones Matthew Burns and Marcus DeLoach into shouting matches as the Bégearss and Figaro (respectively). Tenor Andrew Owens (whom, it was announced at intermission, was suffering from allergies) was nearly inaudible in the role of Leon.

The two soprano leads – Ms Black in the title role and Amy Owens as Florestine – did make up for some of these deficiencies. They handled Milhaud’s melting lines with keen sensitivity. Ms Owens was the cast’s standout.

The dramatic intensity of The Guilty Mother improved significantly in Acts 4 and 5. By this point, however, many in the audience had left. Perhaps a different work would have been better suited to celebrate Milhaud’s 125th birthday. For this reviewer, the opera can be summed up by a line sung by the Countess in Act 4: “You’re killing her with all this noise.”