The Pig, the Farmer, and the Artist
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 7, 2009
I wasn't really expecting to find a real opera at the Gene Frankel Theatre. I mean, the kind where there's a lush red curtain framing the proscenium and a nine-piece(!) orchestra; where the lights go down and the first violinist leads his colleagues in that final tune-up ritual, followed by the arrival onstage—to applause—of the conductor.
But that's just what's going on at the Frankel right now, even though the opera has the perhaps unlikely title of The Pig, the Farmer, and the Artist. It's the fruit of a collaboration of many inordinately talented people: author (libretto and music) David Chesky, director A. Scott Parry, musical director Anthony Aibel (who has conducted the National Symphony Orchestra and at Carnegie Hall), the already mentioned musicians, and a nine-member cast of legit singers—who, as they say, can move. These folks are giving us a grand, entertaining, hilarious, and highly intelligent evening that satirizes not only its stated targets of sex, music, and art, but also politics, society, and the mores and foundations of opera itself. You have to know the rules in order to break them, they say; these artists clearly know their way around opera and their skill and insight informs every moment of this delightfully engaging work.
The first act introduces us to the characters, who include the three who are mentioned in the title along with a pair of cows named Shirley and Harvey. Farmer Jones is a borderline sociopath who operates a wildly successful farm (he's so well-off that he is able to buy something at the local fair for a million dollars in cash). At the fair this particular week, he comes upon a Pig with a spectacular endowment (yes, that's what I mean) and he is instantly smitten. He must have this Pig, and he does. He also is shown a remarkable cow and bull: Shirley, once an Amsterdam hooker, is now ready to settle down, along with her husband, a transvestite who only feels comfortable when he's wearing a pink tutu. Jones buys them too, and thrown into the deal is the Artist, a painter.
A series of circumstances, some of which involve Jones's neighbor, Mr. Cornelius, a farmer-turned-art critic, lead to Jones's decision to slaughter Shirley and Harvey (and the Artist). Warned by a trio of ducks, the cows and the painter flee the farm and head to New York City, where, like so many others before them, they achieve success and celebrity. The Pig and, eventually, the Farmer follow them to the Big Apple, for an ending that is suitably grandly operatic.
You can probably tell that we're living inside an allegory here; Chesky uses the broad characters he sketches to stand in for phenomena and ideas that are all too real and true. The satire is unrelenting, bold, very funny, and entirely on target. Among the recipients of Chesky's barbs: kneejerk conservatives and their urban counterparts, kneejerk society mavens; former President George W. Bush; government arts funding; arts critics; West Village divas who love Liza Minnelli and East Village punks who don't; and everyone involved in the power structure that makes it difficult-to-impossible for young American artists in every field to have their voices heard. Don't forget that all of this is sung: Chesky's score, with allusions to everyone from Bernstein to Kander to Cage, is thrillingly original and beautifully performed by the orchestra and company. If his lyrics sometimes lack subtlety, their wit and incisiveness carry the day.
Parry directs with the lightest of touches, giving us a production that honors the music and the performers and the audience's intelligence and imagination, with only the barest suggestion of set. Continuity is provided via projected titles (the computer that delivers them is appropriately given its own credit in the program). Costumes, which are uncredited (possibly by Parry) are on-the-nose in their memorable blend of simplicity and splashiness.
The singer/actors are splendid. The five soloists are bass-baritone Cory Clines as the reprehensible Farmer Jones; tenor Christopher Preston Thompson as the wispy Artist; mezzo Wendy Buzby as brassy, brazen Shirley the Cow; tenor James N. Kryshak as Harvey the Bull, a shrewd survivor; and Melanie Long in several roles including the art critic Cornelius and his city counterpart, the art dealer Pellegrino. As the Pig, actor Tom Blunt speaks rather than sings his lines, with gusto and great humor. Anchoring the company are the "Greek chorus" Ami Vice, Megan Marino, and Michael Dezort, who portray (as the program tells us) "farm hands, goats, chickens, ducks, cows, sheep, West Village gays, East Village punks, Pellegrino's secretary, high society dilettantes, paparazzi, and Amanda." They're spectacularly good, not only singing Chesky's music but also putting over Parry's sophisticated choreography.
The surprises keep on coming in The Pig, the Farmer, and the Artist, making it the kind of theatre experience I cherish most. Chesky has a lot on his mind and he isn't afraid to share any of it. His new satirical opera is profane and profound, a piece that makes fun of what we think we know about how opera is supposed to go and challenges us to fix some of what's so badly broken, not just in the world of American art, but in American culture and society in general. As they say at the Met, Bravo!