Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2006
Strictures of terminology make Mark Adamo's Lysistrata or, The Nude Goddess a genuine rarity: a brand-new American opera. But if we don't worry about what category in which to place it, we can simply call this outstandingly smart and thoroughly delightful new work a fine new American musical, perhaps the very best seen in New York this season—also a rarity, if not so rarefied. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that Lysistrata belongs on the Broadway stage (one of the more intimate houses, please), where its populist tendencies could flower before a much broader and more diverse audience, and the opportunities it offers to singing actors (as opposed to "legit" singers) could be exploited, greatly to the work's benefit.
For Adamo has done something really wonderful here: he's taken the famous and oft-performed Greek comedy and enlarged it, transforming the sharpest of anti-war satires into a thoughtful meditation on why we have war and why the impulse to go to battle is as fundamental and unremovable from human nature as the impulse to make love.
According to the libretto (and it would be helpful if this appeared in the program), "The time is now. The place is ancient Greece." A war has been raging between Athens and Sparta for some 70 years; as the play begins, a group of four women, led by Kleonike, are in the midst of an ongoing and apparently futile protest, urging the leaders for "Peace Now." At the moment, they are in front of the house of Lysia, who is not terribly sympathetic to their cause, as she's about to have a rendezvous with the Athenian general Nico; she shoos the women away and prepares for her assignation.
But just as Nico has completed a thorough seduction of Lysia (in an aria of foreplay entitled "My Lips, Like So"), he hears the sounds of the military band in the distance, calling him back to duty. He leaves Lysia in a frustrated state of coitus interruptus. Furious, she decides that this war business needs to be halted because it's lousing up her love life. And so, she concocts her plan: the women of Athens and Sparta (for she has made an alliance with Lampito, the wife of the Spartan general Leonidas) will withhold sex from their men until the war is ended.
But, as with any wartime sanction, everybody suffers from deprivation. As days wear on, the men become permanently erect, while the women grow just as, shall we say, lonely (save one, Sappho, who is having a great time writing poetry about her feminine compatriots). More to the point, some of them (men and women) have longings that aren't just physical; they're represented with quiet urgency by Myrrhine and Kinesias, a young couple whose deep romantic love makes the current arrangement tortuous to endure.
Adamo brings his story to a rich and unexpected climax in which the generals find themselves forced to contemplate compromise, with Nico arriving at a dazzlingly frightening and pragmatic conclusion:
I know my city tells me true.
When we regain our own,
And we retain our own,
We will still kill you.
Lysia (now re-christened Lysistrata: "She who brings peace") nevertheless manages a ruse that brings the warfare to an end...until another war breaks out almost immediately. The assemblage cry to the gods for divine help, and Ares and Aphrodite appear, singing:
Never will it end.
Never will it end.
Man will vie with woman,
Friend with enemy:
Each of you will tell the truth, but—
Neither will agree.
The tone of Lysistrata—raucous and bawdy and light-hearted in its first half—turns more and more serious in Act Two until we arrive at this jolting, nearly Brechtian ending. Adamo is a theatre dramatist of great skill; this piece has the capacity to not only move its audience, but also make them think hard about the human condition.
Adamo's lyrics are brilliant, in a class with Sondheim's, I'd venture, which is why I wonder whether an opera house is the right home for this piece. Actors who can sing seem to me to be more appropriate vehicles for Adamo's message than singers who (fitfully) can act: the cast of this production misses a great deal of the humor and wit of the script, and is even less able to deliver the significant subtext. Myrna Paris is formidable and funny as Kleonike, and Jennifer Rivera (Myrrhine) and James Bobick (Kinesias) make attractive young lovers; but Chad Shelton is only serviceable as the complex and thoughtful strategist Nico, and Emily Pulley is entirely unsatisfactory as Lysia, coming across as a flirtatious middle-aged woman having a disappointing fling rather than as someone whose bout of temperament results in life-changing and cathartic politicization.
The orchestration (uncredited; is it Adamo's own?) is magnificent, utilizing a variety of unusual instruments that continually provide surprising and unexpected sounds. The score is conducted by George Manahan and sounds great; the music is diverse and rich and complicated, full of leitmotifs that snake through the piece with satisfying intellectual consistency. The overture, a nearly cacophonous blend of 20th century American musical theatre styles (I detected Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, and Rodgers, among others) sets the stage for what follows splendidly.
But in other departments, New York City Opera lets Lysistrata and its audience down. Derek McLane's unit set is ungainly and ugly, and seems desgined mainly to crowd the performers into small pockets of space on the mammoth stage. Murrell Horton's costumes are stylistically disparate and generally unflattering. Mark Doubleday's lighting adds little interest to the overall stage pictures. And Michael Kahn's staging amounts only to moving the various groups of people around the set; this is a comically and dramatically rich show, but its possibilities are barely mined here.
Which is why I'd love to see Lysistrata where it seems to cry out to be: in a first-class production on Broadway, with a skilled musical theatre director and choreographer at the helm, and a cast of fine singing actors to bring it to life. The message of Lysistrata is urgent and profound: shouldn't lots and lots of audiences get the chance to hear it?