SANTA FE, N.M. — One person's catastrophe is, for another, the cat's meow.
In modern feline opera, there must be a thin line separating lyrical delirium and the imposition of a catatonic state.
"The English Cat"--which is enjoying, after a fashion, its U.S. premiere in Santa Fe this summer--is no relation, thank goodness, to any creation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's. It is Hans Werner Henze's latest exploration of sociopolitical protest within the polite confines of the opera house.
It is undeniably clever. It may even be brilliant.
It also is daring, intrinsically appealing and ambitious. It brims with original dramatic devices, and it has inspired the comfortable German revolutionary to write some of his most accessible, most artful, most transparent music.
Too bad the opera doesn't work.
It starts out pretending to be a lighthearted fantasy. It ends up, after nearly three cutesy-pooh hours, being a thudding quasi-tragic allegory.
In the process, it wants to be progressively amusing, stimulating, poignant and profound. Often, alas, it is simply irritating or cloying or self-indulgent. And more often it is simply long-winded.
The premise isn't simple. Henze found his inspiration in a Balzac short story and in related caricature illustrations by Grandville entitled "Scenes From the Private and Public Lives of Animals." With his favored librettist Edward Bond, the composer blithely moved the action, and the inaction, from the French Directoire to Victorian London.
This provided a decadent but prim ambiance for a saga of social pretension, class hypocrisy, financial greed and moral strife among lowly cats, dogs, birds and others that happen to behave and dress like lofty--or at least potentially lofty--people.
Henze now has had five full-length operas staged in Santa Fe. That puts him ahead of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi, and second only to Richard Strauss. Strange priorities can flourish in the New Mexico desert.
In the reasonably recent past, he has written heroic music, angry music, thick and ponderous music, hyper-intellectual music, atonal music, sweepingly affecting music.
Here he has returned to basically ingratiating operatic music, music that delicately integrates plot with score, music that does not flinch from arias, pop-like tunes, old-fashioned concertatos, orchestral expansions and benedictions.
Although the pervasive accent may be astringent, the essential tone remains innocent. Henze makes knowing allusions to baroque and classical manners, invokes a variety of subtle developmental devices, sets up typecast associations that couple certain characters with specific instruments.
Every musical gesture is carefully thought out. Unfortunately, for at least one potential cat-lover, there are too many musical gestures here, and too few manifestations of spontaneity. Henze's chugging progress from whimsical comedy to bitter tragedy is complicated with a superabundance of detours and repetitions. Just when the opera should soar, it bogs down in busywork and, yes, push-button banality.
In the final consideration, Henze's funny moments aren't all that amusing. His serious moments aren't all that touching. One always knows that superior wheels are turning, but one doesn't always care.
Musically, the performance Friday night was convincing. Dramatically, it was perplexing.
George Manahan led a virtuosic, spicy-textured chamber orchestra through the melodic and harmonic convolutions with grace, elegance and emotional point. A large, strong, youthful cast projected the original English text with better-than-average clarity and obviously savored ensemble values.
Unfortunately, the staging apparatus, entrusted to Charles Ludlam, tended toward the ponderous. An actor-writer-director best known in New York for the inspired lunacy of his Maria Callas impersonation and for his demi-Wagnerian "Ring Gott Farblonjet," Ludlam was curiously subdued in his bona-fide opera debut.
He encountered curious difficulties keeping the plot in motion and the characters in focus. He steadfastly avoided the temptation to be silly, but he seldom thought of something compelling to do instead.
His best work was abetted by charming, picture-book sets designed by Steven Rubin for the revolving stage. But Rubin gave his director, and his singers, a distinct obstacle with animal masks and makeup schemes that blanked and/or blanketed expressive communication.
The stage was dominated by Inga Nielsen as Minette, the demure country catlette who marries the pompous president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Rats, only to end up singing a plaintive pre-drowning aria tied, Gilda-style, in a sack. A veteran of the 1983 world premiere in Schwetzingen, she mustered impossible coloratura flights sweetly, meekly, easily.
Her most notable colleagues on this occasion included Michael Myers as the aging Lord Puff she marries, Scott Reeve as the baritonal tomcat rascal she loves in vain, Kurt Link as the inevitable purring-basso villain, Kathryn Gamberoni as a mouse-soubrette temporarily adopted by the vegetarian cat chorus and Lisa Turetsky as the earthy, street-wise, potentially ethereal mezzo-soprano feline in residence.
The ingredients for something memorable may indeed be here. The crucial focusing force, alas, has remained elusive. Still, there is time. "The English Cat," like others, could have more than one life.