Exotic tease

Despite its rich elements and strong performances, Mata Hari doesn't quite hang together

You have to give Gaitley Mathews credit. The indefatigable artistic director of Deep Ellum Opera Theatre nurtures ambitious new operas in his hole-in-the-wall, neo-warehouse setting.

And Mathews' current offering, Mata Hari, is his third world premiere. It is based on a true tale that has all the elements of an exotic, sexy, lush opera.

Mata Hari was one of those self-made, timeless women who became the mistress of her own destiny by using her ripe sexuality and a good striptease act to win friends and influence men.

Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari, was the victim of an abusive marriage to an army man stationed in Java, whose son died under mysterious circumstances. The Dutch native turned her life around by becoming an exotic dancer and courtesan. Borrowing liberally from Javanese dance and Indonesian culture, she undulated her way into the hearts and pockets of Parisian society. Her demise began, however, when she began spying for France; ultimately she was executed for her espionage.

Could there be a better, steamier story for a new opera?
Mathews changed the seating of the house so the audience sits back on a carpeted floor with pillows. He even found a Javanese gamelan orchestra that had been stored lifeless in a Fort Worth basement for years. Composer Dr. Vince McDermott, a professor of music at Lewis & Clark College, wrote the spare, haunting music for the gamelan and piano. The brass instruments of the gamelan hang mostly from a teak wood frame and are played by a musician sitting on pillows beneath them. Even on Second Avenue in Deep Ellum, food and tea are set out next to the gamelan for the gods to eat.

But the gods do not look too kindly on the opera Mata Hari. Despite all of its wonderful elements--riveting story, haunting music, and some strong performances--the opera adds up to less than all of its significant parts. In some strange case of anti-gestalt, Mata Hari isn't the stunner it should be.

Some basic problems include pacing. The work is too slow in parts, and the scenes are too jagged and stilted. The opera itself should have the sensual liquidity of Mata Hari's dance, but it doesn't. And while some of the composition is haunting, the spare quality of the music can become a dissonant drone.

I would have thought the gamelan could have been used as a more startling emphasis, and to more dramatic, even climactic effect. Even the writing by librettist Jan Baross seems choppy and awkward in the first act, too much for the cast to chew on.

As is often the case with Deep Ellum Opera Theatre, some performances stand out. Amy Bell is wonderful and strong as Rata Kidul. Kidul is an inspired role: she is a Javanese goddess who sees the future and narrates the story. She is also in love with Mata Hari, and though she takes some pleasure in her fateful mistakes, she tries to help shape her destiny. Bell is terrific--as she was in DEOT's H.M.S. Pinafore.

Darlene Marks is a sad, tired Mata Hari who has a crack in her hard-won, narcissistic confidence. It is that Mata Hari who loses control of her own life by agreeing to spy for the French. I'm not too sure why Jennifer Roland was brought in as Marks' stunt dancer, however. Marks plays a middle-aged Mata Hari; Roland, who looks about 19, evokes a completely different image when she dances. On one hand it makes sense as a haunting reverie of her prime. On the other hand, it's sort of insulting. The dance is not too difficult; Marks could have been trained to dance her own part, minus a few lifts on men's shoulders.

Roland is lovely, of course, but her exotic dancing isn't that remarkable. The dance at the end of Act I should build to a frenzied trance; instead it is much too studied and stylized. Finally, I think the dancing should have been incorporated more into the work as a whole, and Mata Hari should have been recast if Marks wasn't comfortable with more movement than a few arm lifts.

In general, I found the men weaker in their roles and less at home in their own voices than the women. (Aside from Gaitley Mathews himself, it seems harder to find a good man with an operatic voice in these parts.)

The opera picks up momentum in Act II, however. At the performance I attended (which featured the Indonesian ambassador and other visiting dignitaries in the audience), the whole cast seemed more comfortable, in part because there are better opportunities--such as Mata Hari's trial--for the ensemble to work together. Scenes 4 and 5 are very moving, with songs like "She Dared Too Much," "You Have Lived to Long," "I Have Devoured Time," and "You Will Not Forget."

Mata Hari is worth experiencing--as a work in progress. There are moments and performances that shouldn't be missed, even though the opera as a whole misses the mark.

I did not attend the Second Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival at Theatre Three with the intention of reviewing it. But the event is such a good idea, and the evening was so well-executed this year, I have to at least mention it.

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