This weekend I attended two performances of Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe (1980) performed by the Fletcher Opera Institute. Based on the familiar Moliere play about religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe is a great example of anti-modernism. Although Mechem acknowledges the mastery of Bartok, Britten and Stravinsky, the music in this opera is more beholden to sophisticated 1940s film scores: one can imagine Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart mugging to some of its twists and turns.
Many of us cannot imagine a more horrifying scenario for a new(ish) opera — music indebted to 1940s Hollywood, without the slightest hint of irony? And yet this opera works in a way that many operas can only envy. There is no attempt at or interest in innovation; rather, all available resources are used in support of telling the story, a story that unfortunately seems both timely and timeless. Occasionally those resources include newish sounds, but not often.
Like many operas, the first act leaves a lot to be desired. The pacing is bit uneven and unconvincing, the scoring is too heavy from time to time, and Mechem frequently succumbs to an unfortunate tendency to extend the last note of a phrase, making some stretches of the text incomprehensible.
But, as in many operas, the weaknesses of the first act are more than compensated for by the effectiveness of the second and third acts. The text-setting, orchestration and pacing get better and better as the evening goes on, working seamlessly to deliver a very entertaining final 90 minutes of theater.
And the first act certainly has its moments: one of the highlights of the performance is a first-act duet in which Mariane laments her unrequited love, while the maid Dorine mocks her in an amusing canon.
For those who attend performances only in the hope of hearing something unlike they’ve ever heard before, this opera would be a complete waste of time. If, however, you have no objection to superb craftsmanship and artistry that puts itself in service of high entertainment values, Tartuffe is a success.