The New Yorker: On Site Opera Takes on a Rare, Dark Work

By Russell Platt
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

A great work by Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) is like a blast of complicated sunshine. The composer, a scion of one of the most ancient and distinguished Jewish families of Provence, produced a brand of Gallic savoir-faire that was a multicolored phenomenon. The “Suite Provençale” for orchestra may be a light-classics favorite, but its jubilant mood has a scorching intensity. Even ostensibly simple moments, like the wistful, gently pulsing slow movement of the Seventh String Quartet, seem to echo an immemorial past. An early adopter of polytonality (music that suggests multiple keys simultaneously), he charged his basically melodic style with a power that could sometimes overwhelm.

Near the end of Milhaud’s long and astonishingly prolific career, his compositional resources were tested in “La Mère Coupable” (1965), an opera based on the play of the same name by Beaumarchais. It was the last of the writer’s “Figaro” trilogy, which began with “The Barber of Seville” and “The Marriage of Figaro”—each of which was turned into an opera you may have heard of. But On Site Opera, one of the most vibrant of New York’s recently established “indie” companies, has avoided Rossini and Mozart, instead mounting site-specific productions of works, based on the first two plays, by Giovanni Paisiello and Marcos Portugal, respectively. “La Mère Coupable” is the company’s pièce de résistance—it is the first U.S. performance of the piece in any form.

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