Boston Opera Collaborative opened its main 2013-2014 season on Friday night with “Voyage à Paris,” an evening of cabaret songs at Club Oberon. The mixed-media event featured seven singers and dozens of digitally projected postcards from Belle Époque and First World War-era France. It was a novel and entertaining time warp of a performance.
This being Oberon, the audience was seated at snack-laden tables on the floor, with the singers alternately gracing the stage or traipsing through the audience as they sang. Unlike the venue’s trademark Donkey Show, no fairies directed the audience’s sight or parted the crowd; as a result, when one song ended, many of the attendees would quickly glance around to try and guess the next person to sing. The repertoire was mostly less well known: a few might have been familiar to classically trained singers or chanson aficionados, but most were likely new to the whole audience. (Translations were projected as an integrated overlay, mirroring the visual style of the postcard images they accompanied. The images themselves were drawn from the MFA’s now-finished exhibition “The Postcard Age”.) All this added up into a pleasant mix of visual, aural, and spatial novelty.
If the challenges of navigating some 24 songs in almost as many styles were onerous, Music Director Andrew Altenbach showed no signs of strain as he moved through them at the piano. The songs ran the gamut from Romantic-era chansons to full-out popular songs of the sorts heard in the early decades of records and radio. No singer delivered two songs in a row, nor did very similar songs follow each other—both touches that also helped keep the program lively.
The songs, actions, and images were organised with a loose storyline: a man (Nathan Owen) and woman (Jenny Searles) meet, fall in love are separated by war and other challenges (for example, as the title of one song puts it, “Infidelité”) before eventually being reunited and reconciled. Nathan Troup’s staging often sent the singers moving through the audience; the resulting proximity of the singers was a more than reasonable exchange for the dry acoustics. Costuming was limited (its palette recalled the initial choices for the Model T: any color so long as it was black) but seemed sufficiently reminiscent of the period. Penning postcards on stage was also a frequent action—one that the audience was invited to partake in as well, with a set of actual postcards provided on each table for that purpose.
The diversity of the musical spread was a feature and the relative brevity of the songs helped maintain a sense of momentum and movement. Standout numbers in the first half included the clever courtship song “Allons-y Chochotte” (Satie), delivered by Nathan Owen; the opening and ensemble-sung “Voyage à Paris” (Poulenc); and “À une fontaine”, sung by Jessica Jacobs. Love (whether romance- or travel-related) did not have an entirely smooth path in the evening’s fare, but the sobering “Au pays ou se fait la guerre” (Duparc), sung hauntingly by Searles against the backdrop of a recruiting poster, nevertheless landed hard.
One intermission and a number of bar visits followed before the program resumed with a dose of infidelity and other privations (or exhilarations). The serious mood was first broken by Heather Gallagher’s excellent rendition of “Hôtel” (Poulenc) —alternately playful, lounging, and languid as she drew chuckles from the audience. This kicked off a strong, four-song arc of excellent performances of memorable songs. Next was “Montparnasse” (Poulenc), also sung by Searles, counterpointed by the lively patter of “1904” (Poulenc), delivered in rapid fire by Krista Marie Laskowski as she wove through the audience. The set was completed by a spunky and panache-filled rendition of “Je m’embrouille” (Guilbert) by Allessandra Cionco—by the volume of laughter, one of the clear audience favorites of the evening.
Ravel’s “Chanson à boire” landed less well. As one of the best-known songs on the program, it is normally hammed up into a sure-fire crowd pleaser. Nathan Owen’s portrayal of the drunken Don Quixote was more tipsy than sloshed and more Kosher than ham; despite inducing a group of ladies to laugh at his inebriated antics, it drew more smiles than chuckles. That said, his staggering through the audience while singing was still one of features that set the evening pleasantly apart from a typical art song delivery. Owen’s lovelorn soldier might as well have kept drinking, too: he had to wait several more songs to be reunited with his lover when Searles finished her wry rendition of “Madame Arthur” (Guilbert). After appropriate musical commentary, however, all was well and the cast joined together for an ensemble close with Satie’s “Je te veux” (“I want you”).